International robotics competition puts people power at heart of tech

This week more than 15,000 students are converging on the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit to battle each other. In the nicest way possible.

The FIRST ® World Championship, which runs until Saturday, sees students from more than 40 countries pit their own robot designs against each other. But the high-tech competition is, ironically, very much about people.

Andy Istudor knows first-hand just how much the competition can mean to participants.“The two things I like most about the competition,” says student ambassador Andy Istudor, “is the robots, and all the parts behind the robots.”

Istudor traveled with his peers from Romania to participate in the competition, which is appearing in Detroit for the second time. For Istudor, the event is just as much about meeting and connecting with others as it is about feats of engineering.

“The teams are like little families,” he says.

Istudor is a previous competitor and this year leads tour groups around the event as an ambassador. His pride in the event, and its participants, is obvious. With teams spending around 500 hours building their designs, it’s no wonder they learn to work together. The bonds are not just limited to the individual teams, though.

“There’s a strong sense of fair play at the competition,” says Istudor. “We are gracious, we help each other out. If one team needs something for their design, another will lend it.”

As if to demonstrate his point, an announcement over the “pits” (where hundreds of booths house the teams and their work) booms out a call for spare parts. Team 85 is, apparently, in need of white duct tape.

This year’s competition has students designing robots that can pick up items—balls and discs—and deliver them into a collection box. But the teams aren’t just about engineering and mechanics. Each group incorporates student fundraisers, marketers and designers. Istudor describes it as a “little business”, and the benefits for students looking for real-world experience is evident.

“The hardest part is understanding the potential of your team,” Istudor says. “To get everyone to work together.”

The Thunderchickens, from Sterling Heights, are competing this year.

For senior student Emma Fidler, this is also one of the benefits of the competition. Fidler is the CEO of the Thunderchickens team from the Utica Center for Math, Science, and Technology, and says she loves how the robots serve as a mechanism to solve a complex problem.

“Each system on the robot functions together like the organ systems of the human body,” Fidler says. “It's fascinating to learn how to combine those systems through teamwork and creative engineering.”

It’s a creative endeavor indeed. Fidler’s team has designed a robot with a drive train, elevator, arm and even a rotating wrist.

“It’s incredibly fun and a great way to get involved in engineering,” she says.

Kennedy Remsnyder, Olivia Richter, Tommy Quinn, Bradley Maier, Micah Sornig and Naliyah Reeves will be some of the youngest competitors.Not just for big kids

This year, Tommy Quinn and his five teammates are part of an early elementary Lego robotics team competing at the event. The team from Browning Elementary will be competing for the first time in the First Lego League Jr. competition, and they can't wait.

“I have played with Legos my whole life,” says Quinn, a second grader. “I like that you can design something in whatever color you want, with different shapes. It’s very creative for people like us.”

Utica Community Schools superintendent Dr Christine Johns says she's proud of the talent coming out of her school district, and that the region remains a hotbed for robotics education.

“From the earliest grades, our teachers work to inspire student interest in computer science and develop the essential skills of innovation and problem solving,” says Johns.

The junior level of the competition challenges students to use Lego parts to build a moon base that has a moving piece. Teams must also create a poster that includes core values and resource components.

“We are basically building something that you could use to survive in space,” says second grade student Sornig.

Quinn, Sornig and their team are excited to be a part of the 40,000-strong crowd of students, friends, parents, mentors, coaches, volunteers and sponsors in attendance this year. The event is expected to return next year and is estimated to generate $30 million, annually, for the Michigan economy.
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Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at