Developing Michigan’s High-Tech Workforce
The term “robot” conjures up various images, from a helpful device on an assembly line to the sophistication of robotic vacuum cleaners like the Roomba, or the heroic actions of robots like from the TV series “Lost in Space” from the 1960s, or “Star Wars” characters C-3PO and R2-D2. Robots are now intertwined in the fabric of our lives, and today’s youth are eager to push the limits of what these machines can do.
Thanks to more than $2 million dollars in state grants from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), hundreds of Michigan students are getting the chance to build and compete with their own robots. The grants are part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to invest in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics, which Michigan has been funding since 2014.
According to Snyder, the FIRST program helps to prepare students for success in tomorrow’s economy, and the grants help to ensure Michigan maintains the advanced talent development of its students in the future. Nearly 500 Michigan schools received the grants, which range from $100 to $9,000. Many area schools are on the grant awardee list; the full list of schools receiving grants can be seen on the MDE’s website at techplan.org/rdi/.
One of the Michigan schools benefiting from FIRST Robotics participation is Maple Valley High School in Vermontville, Michigan. The high school created its first club in January 2018 and competed in the FIRST Robotics contest from March 1-3 at Kettering University. The grant received by Maple Valley will fund robotics programs at not only the high school level, but the elementary and junior-high levels.
“Students here were interested in the program after hearing about it from students who had transferred into Maple Valley from other schools that already had the program,” said Maple Valley robotics club co-advisor, Lance Beasley. He explained that the students must learn to work together as a team while learning how each part of a robot works, how to build and code one, how to optimize it for the competition and then to plan appropriately in finishing in time for the competition.
Roger Curtis, co-chairperson of the FIRST Robotics World Championships Detroit Steering Committee, added that FIRST teaches students about various aspects of science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM), and helps them get interested in careers in those areas. The program was also developed to help inspire students to build their self-confidence, as well as their communication and leadership skills. FIRST Robotics competition teams learn to master many other skills and concepts, including:
- Studying under professional engineers
- Learning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills
- Learning how to operate specialized hardware, software and tools for building the robots
- Designing and building their own robot and compete with it in special tournaments and championships
- Developing skills in teamwork and interpersonal communication
- Comprehending and practicing
- Qualifying for college scholarships
In fact, research shows that students who have participated in FIRST Robotics are three times more likely to go into the engineering field and 87 percent more likely to take on more difficult math and science courses when they go to college. Other positive statistics include 88 percent becoming more interested in succeeding in school, 76 percent gaining better communication skills, 98 percent learning better problem-solving techniques, 95 percent learning how to manage their time better, 93 percent gaining conflict resolution skills and 92 percent wanting to go to college.
Formed in 1989, the FIRST program is seen to be especially empowering for female students, with those enrolled in the program showing a marked increase in their interest in STEAM careers. The Maple Valley Team currently has one female on the team, Josey Terpening. She says she joined the club because it “looked cool,” and she wanted to learn about motors, wires and how they go together to make something move.
Literacy in STEAM topics will help youth such as Terpening build the confidence and skills they need to be successful in a future society filled with even more technological wonders than we likely have today. Being involved in FIRST Robotics teams help students have the confidence and knowledge to go on to well-paying career fields that help inspire the best of the best for their future and Michigan.
Winning teams at the local level will also get to participate in the championships, scheduled to take place April 25-28 in Detroit at Ford Field and the Cobo Center. About 60,000 kids and 700 teams are expected to compete in four levels of competition. Winners will compete in other championship events, such as the World Championships in St. Louis.
Robots are already part of our daily lives, whether it be mechanical devices such as the Roomba that help make our lives easier or virtual robotic creations like Siri and Cortana, answering our questions right from our smartphones.
The field of robotics is expected to continue to grow in the future. Thanks to grants like this and organizations like FIRST, Michigan’s youth will not be left behind. Instead, they will grow up to help find the solutions to future problems, while using their skills to help create a brighter future across the globe.