Robotics competition teaches technology and provides a path towards future careers

Watch the E-Ville Empire Robotics team practice in the Garber High School Library and it’s easy to miss what’s really happening. 

The teens and their teacher are focused on guiding a robot to pick up a bright red ball and push it through an opening in a tall column. What’s happening, though, is much more important than maneuvering a ball in order to score points in a FIRST Robotics Competition later this month in Midland. 

“I want my kids to understand that there’s more out there than what they thought was possible,” explains Ethan Shannon, the school’s Advanced Placement Computer Science teacher. Shannon also serves as lead mentor for the robotics team. “I want my kids to come out of this program with an idea of what they want to do with their lives.”

Shannon points to Carson Shorkey, lead fabricator and driver on the team. His sophomore year, Carson wanted to be a welder. Shannon changed that. “I told him ‘You want to be the guy who is in charge of all the welders. You want to be the welding engineer and not stuck in a mask in 100-degree heat all day long.”

Carson, now a senior, is applying for scholarships and debating whether he wants to attend Ferris State University or Delta College next fall. “Mr. Shannon was exactly right,” Carson says. “I don’t want to spend my whole day in a hot, sweaty environment. I’d rather be on a computer.”

When Madolyn Glocksine joined the team last year as a freshman, she only knew she wanted to do something with computers. Now, she’s intent on a coding career and spends summers attending computer science camps. 

The team also needs kids interested in business careers. Students market, fundraise, organize tools, and more. Jacob Watson, a junior, raised $18,000 in grants and sponsorships last year. He’s still raising money for this year, but Essexville-Hampton Schools also budgeted $25,000 for this year’s program. Jacob wants to study marketing in college. Jillian Flippin works with Jacob, but her focus is more on artwork and graphic design. 

Jillian and Jacob are heavily involved in team’s entry into the Chairman’s Competition. The robot isn’t involved in that part of the FIRST competition. Instead, the team created a video explaining its community outreach efforts, such as volunteering for the Humane Society of Bay County. The video is online here. 

The Michigan FIRST Robotics Competition website echoes Shannon’s philosophy, reading: “The robot is more than a science project. Teams produce a commercial product that is designed, machined, programmed, and marketed to win. Along the way, students sample a variety of STEM fields to see where their true passion lies. Working side by side with industry mentors, FIRST gives students on-the-job experience and the chance to build skills not possible in a traditional classroom setting.”

In March, though, the focus isn’t on careers. The team is preparing for FIRST district competitions later this month. If they earn enough points in two district events, they’ll be invited to a state competition. From there, they could qualify for the World Championships in Detroit. The Essexville team qualified for the World Tournament in 2018 and Shannon thinks they stand a good chance of going all the way again.

“I think this is the best machine we’ve ever built,” Shannon says. “It’s wicked fast. You don’t want to be anywhere near it when it’s moving.”

The robot is the result of hours of planning, testing, and hard work. The team meets all year, learning new skills and practicing. In early January, the program kicks into high gear when FIRST announces the year’s game. This year, the game is Destination: Deep Space. In the game, teams earn points by maneuvering robots to collect disks and balls and deposit them into rockets and a transport vehicle. Details about the game are here

For about 6 weeks after the game is announced, teams design and build the robots. Then, they bag them until the week of competition. While the robots are bagged, practice with the machines is forbidden. Instead, the team finesses the coding that powers the robot and builds spare parts for repairs on the run.

“You have to count on stuff breaking and you need to be very, very quick about repairing between matches,” Shannon says. In the 2018 competition, the Essexville team once had 8 minutes for repairs between matches.

The program has grown significantly since it began 6 years ago. Then, it was just the high school. This year, the program expanded to include FIRST Lego League teams from Verellen Elementary School and a FIRST Tech Challenge team from Cramer Junior High. 

The program, from elementary school to high school, gives kids a chance to shine while learning real-world job skills, Shannon says.

“You have kids who have a chance to be a hero to their team who might not be able to do that on a football field or a basketball court or in a swimming pool. These kids have a chance to show just how bright, smart, tough, and resilient they are,” he explains.