By Ilene Wolff
Even though she had never so much as picked up a hammer before, when 17-year-old Shruti Jha walked into the school gym to join Crevolution, a Macomb County high school robotics team, she immediately felt welcome.
“I’m the biggest girly-girl you’ll ever meet,” says Jha, a senior at the Utica Academy for International Studies, sporting turquoise nail polish on her fingers and royal blue on her toes. “But I can still come here and do everything.”
Jha, who’s headed to the University of Michigan in September to major in environmental engineering, says her eager participation in Crevolution really made her mom wonder what was going on.
“My mom’s like, ‘Why are you always at robotics?’” says Jha. “And I go, like, ‘Mom, it’s so much fun!’”
Jha and her Crevolution teammates are part of an international robotics competition program for high schoolers known as FIRST: “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”
More than just robots
Derrick Wilson, a senior from Detroit’s Davis Aerospace Technical High School, works on robots with his school’s FIRST team after aircraft maintenance and other classes during the day. He’s hoping what he’s learned by being on his team, the RedTails, will lead to G.I. Bill money for an arts and industrial design program — after he serves in the Marines.
“Working with the robotics program gave me a lot of experience working as a team,” Wilson says. “With the Marines, it’s all about the team.”
FIRST was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen to inspire young people like Wilson and Jha to get more involved in science and technology. The Manchester, NH-based nonprofit’s programs aim to build interest in high tech and, at the same time, use that newfound interest to help foster self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.
According to Kamen, who spoke at the Michigan State Championship at Eastern Michigan University in March, not everyone can become a professional athlete or actor, but every student has a chance for a successful career in the tech sector.
FIRST in Michigan started in the mid-1990s and divides the state into 16 districts. Each Michigan team participates in two qualifying tournaments that produce the state’s top 64 teams. By the time the State Championships are over, Michigan’s best 18 teams are on their way to the World Championship.
In April, the Mech Warriors, the Brother Rice/Marian high schools team in Bloomfield Township, headed to the World Championship in St. Louis, along with 17 other Michigan teams. The five-day trip was a rewarding experience, says 18-year-old team leader Carrie Landes. “FIRST Robotics is about much more than just winning or losing,” she says. “What really matters are the experiences we gain, the lessons we learn and how all of our students grow together throughout the season.”
Brett Hudson, 19, was on the Crevolution team for three years in high school, and now is a University of Michigan-Dearborn math major who dreams of a career in nuclear engineering. He says FIRST helped him with self-confidence, noting that three years ago talking with a reporter would have had him sweating and stammering.
Hudson, who volunteered to help the current Crevolution team, also says participating in FIRST helped him realize the world needs people with well-rounded skills, and not just specialists.
“I’ve helped build it, I’ve helped design it, I’ve helped program it,” he says of Crevolution’s past robots. “I wasn’t great at any one thing, but I was good at everything.”
Science as a sport
For each year’s robotics tournament, FIRST teams around the world must design and build robots that perform a specified task. This year, the robot had to shoot a basketball at a hoop. Previous tasks included hanging geometric shapes from FIRST’s logo on poles and dropping inner tubes onto pegs.
FIRST competitions are very similar to varsity sports: They foster intense team loyalty, and outlandish face painting, costumes and raucous music are hardly out of place.
Francois Castaing, FIRST Michigan president and former Chrysler engineer, likes the varsity sports analogy. He says the robotics competition has changed how serious or brainy kids view themselves and are viewed by others.
“It’s clear that FIRST has been set up as a varsity sport of the mind,” Castaing says. “The kids that are involved in science, instead of being viewed as the nerds in the corner, are the heroes.”
By enlisting the help of engineers as team mentors, FIRST may also help students understand what engineering professionals do. It’s a gap that’s at least partially responsible for a lack of young people entering his field — and the resulting shortages there, too, Castaing says.
“You never see on any television show (images of) engineers working,” he says.
Other factors are compounding the problem, says Castaing. Many engineers in the baby boomer generation have retired, and their younger colleagues have moved out of Michigan, because the auto industry cut back on jobs in response to the 2008 recession. Plus, universities have seen a declining enrollment of American students in their engineering programs, even as, after 9/11, the number of visas issued to foreign students eager to take their place decreased.
FIRST mentor Tito Huffman has a mechanical engineering degree and works as a design engineer at the General Motors Tech Center in Warren. On an evening in May, he was on hand at the Michigan Engineering Zone when the Davis Aerospace RedTails and the robotics team from Detroit’s Finney High School, the Highlanders, met for a session on “continuous improvement.”
“That’s part of the process of what we do in engineering,” he says, noting that FIRST gives students a taste of what a career in his field may be like.
That is why FIRST partners with the University of Michigan College of Engineering and the Detroit Public Schools to operate the MEZ, a fully equipped robotics workroom and academic support facility where Detroit-area high school students learn and experience engineering.
Huffman’s fellow mentor Bryan Battaglia, who teaches biology and physics at the Utica Academy for International Studies in the Utica School District, is not an engineer. He majored in biology, but his interest in mechanical life is strong, too.
“I’m kind of geeky and I love robots,” he says after meeting with the Crevolution team to discuss plans for taking their robot on the road during the summer to art fairs or other community activities.
Reaching out to the community is vital for the robotics teams’ success because the students, in addition to building a robot, must garner sponsorships to fund their projects and travel to competitions.
Joe Mohan, coach of the Brother Rice/Marian Mech Warriors for 10 years, explains that FIRST’s leadership opportunities for the students, via overall project and subgroup management, also include, in addition to sponsorships, computer-aided design, programming, electronics, website design and marketing.
Mohan, a retired firefighter who’s very mechanically inclined, says he knows the students he works with are destined for the top level in whatever field they choose, and not because they know how to build a robot.
“Our program isn’t about building robots,” he says. “It’s about strengthening skills, learning to develop emotionally and in maturity.”
Those involved say FIRST is for everyone.
Alisha Harper, 15, a 10th-grader on the Finney High School team, agrees. “FIRST is for anyone as long as you’re willing to work.”
Does FIRST work?
The Brandeis University Center for Youth and Communities wanted to find out if the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition had really led students to STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — careers. To do that, it surveyed 173 FIRST robotics competition alumni from New York City and the Detroit/Pontiac area who “graduated” from the program between 1999 and 2003 and matched them with results from an existing set of data.
Results showed that, when weighed against the comparison group, FIRST students are:
• more than three times as likely to major in engineering
• roughly 10 times as likely to have had an apprenticeship, internship or co-op job in their freshman year
• significantly more likely to expect to achieve a postgraduate degree
• more than twice as likely to expect to pursue a career in science and technology
• nearly four times as likely to expect to pursue a career in engineering
• more than twice as likely to volunteer in their communities
The results come as no surprise to Gail Alpert, vice president and secretary of FIRST in Michigan. “What this shows is that FIRST helps drive kids toward a career in engineering, even those with no prior exposure to the engineering field.” Alpert credits much of this influence to dedicated mentors who give so much of their time and talent to FIRST students.
“The opportunities these kids get really augment their education,” she says. “You see this light go on in kids’ heads, and suddenly school becomes relevant.”