Orlando Garrett, 18, didn't have any interest when he first learned about the Grizzly Robotics club while attending the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Manufacturing (STEMM) Middle College at Ypsilanti Community High School (YCHS).
"When I started STEMM my freshman year, I didn't do real well, and I wasn't interested in robotics because I wasn't that type of person. I thought it was nerdy," Garrett says.
But as of sophomore year, his grades were poor. On the ACCUPLACER college-readiness scale for math, science, and language arts, Garrett scored one and zero out of six in two categories. That means he wasn't even scoring high enough to qualify for a remedial class at the high school level.
But after getting involved with Grizzly Robotics his sophomore year, Garrett "fell in love with it" and recently scored six out of six on his ACCUPLACER test, meaning he is ready to go to college after he completes the winter semester at STEMM Middle College.
"It made me want to change my life and do something important," he says.
Garrett's story may be more dramatic than those of other students participating in robotics clubs in the greater Ypsilanti area, but many of the young participants are finding their passions and improving their academic standing through local robotics clubs and competitions.
Grizzly Robotics gears up for another competition
Across the U.S., high schools and even grade schools and middle schools have been adding robotics clubs as interest in the field grows. The Grizzly Robotics program is unique in that it preceded the establishment of STEMM Middle College, which was built on its success.
Scott Heister, lead mentor for Grizzly Robotics, was one of the people who designed STEMM Middle College, a five-year academy whose students take classes both at YCHS and at Washtenaw Community College, earning up to 60 college credits.
Heister says he knew the robotics program at Willow Run Community Schools had made a huge impact on the students there. So when that school system merged with Ypsilanti schools in 2013, he wanted to incorporate many of the principles of the national nonprofit For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) into the middle college, with a lot of community involvement and project-based learning.
Mentor Chris Lesser says between 30 and 35 students participate in Grizzly Robotics. The STEMM team is currently joining teams around Michigan and the world in gearing up for the 2019 FIRST Robotics Competition.
A different design challenge is issued early each year, and this year's challenge, "Destination Deep Space," was announced Jan. 5. Students have until Feb. 19 to build a robot to meet the challenge, which involves moving materials from one location to another with an autonomous robot. If a team gets enough points or a chairman's award at the regional level, they advance to the state competition, and can continue on to the world competition from there.
It's not surprising that the robotics program builds science and engineering skills, but it also calls upon students to learn teamwork and public speaking.
Jacob Egnor, 16, says he enjoys giving a verbal presentation about his team's efforts to win the chairman's award. It's the most prestigious award students can win during a FIRST robotics competition and means a guaranteed place in the next highest set of competitions.
Egnor says the special thing about robotics as an extracurricular activity is that "you leave with an experience most kids don't get from sports. Every kid who participates in robotics can go pro, not like in basketball."
Kadin Flowers, 14, is a freshman at STEMM. He says he was interested in LEGO League, another FIRST program for eighth graders, and came to STEMM to pursue robotics.
"The program is hard, but I love building and controlling robots," he says.
Angelo Williams, 17, also had an interest in building things with LEGOs, which led to an interest in robotics.
"My sister knows quite a few of the robotics club members and told me about it, and I've been involved with robots ever since," Williams says. "I love it. It was the best decision."
That decision brought him and several other STEMM students to China in 2018.
"Our team, along with a few others from the U.S., were invited by the Chinese government to come mentor new FIRST teams that they've started up there," says STEMM teacher and robotics mentor Dan Schunck. "We took our robot from last year's competition to compete with those teams, and the team that our team mentored got second place and beat us."
"China was amazing," Williams says. "The food, the people. It's indescribable."
The Linc-Bots are a family affair
Lincoln High School's Linc-Bots team is newer to the FIRST Robotics Competition, entering its third competition this year, but the team did well its first year in competition.
Richard Roe, a physics and astronomy teacher at the high school, serves as lead mentor. His father, Rick Roe, also helps out in the woodshop, and other family members help with regional competitions, food, and transportation to competitions.
Roe had already been mentoring a robotics team at a charter school in Detroit before bringing the program to Lincoln High School, his alma mater. The first year went well because the team had a "neat strategy and built a niche robot that served us well," Roe says. "The second year, it was a big growing and learning experience, and we had a little bit of a sophomore slump."
However, hopes are high for the 2019 competition.
Kristin Williams, 15, is in her second year with the Linc-Bots.
"I loved the competition. It's a completely amazing atmosphere," she says. "It's like a sporting event for people that don't enjoy sports usually."
Williams particularly likes the idea of "gracious professionalism." If a team needs a part, they can go to a mentor and have it announced over the loudspeakers.
"They'll ask for parts, and always someone will come from a different team and give the parts to you. Everybody is friends, even the ones who are in competition with each other," she says.
Competitions are "fun, but kind of stressful," says Austin McDonald, 16, who is in his second year with the Linc-Bots.
"It's definitely going to be harder this year," McDonald says. "Last year it was based on driving a robot to a certain spot. This year, it's in autonomous mode, and there's not somebody driving, so we're relying on cameras and sensors, and the robot seeing and going toward a target. It's going to be more difficult to code."
Williams says she was a little surprised that the program also develops business and marketing skills one wouldn't necessarily associate with a robotics club.
"There's a social aspect and a business aspect," Williams says. "You have to make a slideshow for the team and get sponsors, because after the third year, you stop getting money from FIRST and have to be completely funded off sponsorships."
Williams says math has always come easy to her, so she knows she wants to pursue a career in a STEM field, but she's torn between engineering and a career in the health sciences.
Regardless of her final career choice, she says the robotics club has made an impact.
"It's made me develop skills I'll use later on in life," she says.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.