Many people say it's important to get kids interested in STEM subjects -- science, technology engineering and math. For nearly 10 years, Jill Wilker has been trying to do something about it.

Wilker is the founder and executive director of Playing at Learning, a Fremont-based nonprofit that helps students in the Bay Area and Sacramento learn about how to design, build and program robots. Playing at Learning is the local partner of First, the organization founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen that sponsors competitions globally using Lego-based and other robots.

Jill Wilker, co-founder and executive director of Playing at Learning, poses at her non-profit Friday afternoon, Nov. 29, 2013, in San Jose, Calif. Wilker
Jill Wilker, co-founder and executive director of Playing at Learning, poses at her non-profit Friday afternoon, Nov. 29, 2013, in San Jose, Calif. Wilker started the organization in 2004 to help run the local First Lego League Robotics tournament. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

An engineering program manager at Intel (INTC) by day, Wilker didn't originally plan on taking on such a big task. Playing at Learning originally was founded to help organize and support Lego robotics teams and competitions in the Fremont area. But soon after she founded it, Playing at Learning was asked to run all of the competitions in Northern California.

That was somewhat manageable when she first started and there were about 1,400 students in the area participating. But since then, the programs have boomed and the number of students involved in competitions Playing at Learning sponsors has grown to about 7,000.

Wilker spoke recently with this newspaper about her organization, how it compares with a startup and what it needs to grow and thrive. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Many people might have agreed that something needed to be done to help organize Lego robotics competitions and teams in their area, but probably few would step forward and volunteer to do it. Why did you feel that was your responsibility?

A: We felt we had created this problem, and so we should be part of the solution.

I come from a very rich family of people who are very tied to the community. I grew up in the Midwest, and we were always doing something for the community. My partner, Mark, is the son of a minister with a very similar kind of philosophy of "somebody's got to do it."

We just happened to be at the right place with our careers. I was consulting. Mark was either working part time or on reduced work time. So it just was something we felt we could handle at that time.

Q: This isn't your day job and you don't get paid to do this. How do you balance your Playing at Learning with your actual job?

A: I'm a nights-and-weekend kind of person. It is a hard balancing game. But when I'm at work, I'm 100 percent focused on work. I know that Intel is a very big supporter of the First programs overall. So I don't have to separate that.

Q: How have the skills you use in your job translate to what you're doing for Playing at Learning?

A: They involve a lot of the same skill sets of coordinating, making sure that people have what they need. They're very, very similar, actually, from that perspective.

Q: How are the two experiences different?

A: In my day job, if I saw an opportunity to expand my market and I could make a business case, there's a mechanism to do that. I'm not connected into the nonprofit lingo enough to make that similar pitch.

Jill Wilker, co-founder and executive director of Playing at Learning, poses at her non-profit Friday afternoon, Nov. 29, 2013, in San Jose, Calif. Wilker
Jill Wilker, co-founder and executive director of Playing at Learning, poses at her non-profit Friday afternoon, Nov. 29, 2013, in San Jose, Calif. Wilker started the organization in 2004 to help run the local First Lego League Robotics tournament. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

I was part of some early startups, and understand how you pitch to a VC. The nonprofit world is different. As an engineer, I'm probably not the right person to take Playing at Learning to that next step. I need to find that next advocate, someone who can come in and shepherd it to all the things we know we can do and that we could be doing and serving all the kids that we could serve, that the market's there.

Q: What other steps does Playing at Learning need to take to grow as an organization? I assume funding is one of them.

A: Correct. That is our biggest limitation, actually. We're trying to raise money so that we don't have to worry about the rent, but also to bring on some staff people.

Q: It sounds as though in many ways this has been like a startup experience.

A: It is. It is absolutely like a startup. It's like a passion. My favorite experience is seeing the 9- and 10-year-olds -- particularly the girls -- and the excitement they feel toward engineering, in a way that they do not get in school.

Q: Where would you like Playing at Learning to be five or 10 years from now?

A: In a perfect world, we'd have a thriving set of staff people. We could see 4,000 teams in First Lego League. We could see something similar approaching that for First Tech Challenge and Junior First Lego League.

But really, it's not a numbers game. We need to do better at documenting. These are the kids that are going to make a better future. And they're already doing some great work, but we're losing their stories along the way. I think there are collaborations that we can do with people who are better at storytelling -- not to gain fame for the individuals, but for people to feel and understand the impact that these kids are having. I'd love to have them have a bigger voice. The robot is just the attractor, it's not the end-all. It's not the summation of the programs.

Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285. Follow him at Twitter.com/troywolv.

Jill Wilker

Age: 49
Position: Solid-state drive program manager, Intel; founder and executive director, Playing at Learning
Previous jobs: Program manager, LSI; consultant; director of customer applications, Chip Express.
Education: Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, Purdue University
Family: Married; two adult children
Residence: Fremont


FIVE THINGS ABOUT JILL WILKER

1. Before buying a house in Fremont in 1992, she had never lived in any one place for more than four years.
2. Received President's Call to Service Award in 2007 for more than 4,000 hours of volunteer service.
3. Lives by the Calvin Coolidge quote on persistence and determination being the key to success.
4. Loves parades and would very much like to create a version of the Rose Bowl parade with robots.
5. Along with a few others, created in 2005 what was then the world's largest Rube Goldberg machine made only of Lego elements at the Alameda County Fair.

Source: Jill Wilker