Sterling Heights

Q&A: Sterling Heights AI hackathon to connect high schoolers with leaders in the defense industry

It’s not every day that our high school students get the opportunity for hands-on experiences with state-of-the-art AI and robotics technologies – and valuable mentorship from industry experts – but that’s exactly what will be happening on Thursday, July 13, at the Advanced Manufacturing Commercialization Center (AMCC) in Sterling Heights. It’s the first-ever AI Ground Vehicle Hackathon Challenge, an event that organizers hope will become a tradition around these parts, and perhaps as often as twice a year.

The AI Ground Vehicle Hackathon Challenge is free and available to high school juniors and seniors in Macomb County. Registration is currently open and available online HERE.

While hackathon events, in one iteration or another, have been around for years now, this particular hackathon is unique in its partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), a reflection of Sterling Heights’ deep ties to, and robust population of, companies in the defense industry and associated sectors. The hackathon offers high school students the unique opportunity to work closely with the DoD, which, it should come as no surprise, has its hands in some of the most groundbreaking technologies the world over.

“We have strong roots in defense manufacturing here in the Sterling Innovation District, and we want to build upon that legacy by growing our talent pipeline to help emerging technologies thrive and continue to innovate,” Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor said in a statement. “This hackathon event is a great way to do that by showing young students how exciting this industry is and how it can be a solid path to their future. We’re proud to support this event, and we look forward to these students continuing to innovate for years to come right here in Sterling Heights.”

The AI Ground Vehicle Hackathon Challenge is hosted by Macomb County MARZ (Macomb Automation & Robotics Zone), a nonprofit that bolsters K-12 students in their interest in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), robotics, and automation through activities, events, and programming. Event partners include the DoD, the Sterling Innovation District, the City of Sterling Heights, and more.

[Related: Read “Robotics program aims to fuel talent pipeline, reduce stigma in STEM education” on Metromode.]

We spoke with Sana Hoda Sood, program lead and spokesperson for the event, to learn all about it.

Metromode: The inaugural AI Ground Vehicle Hackathon Challenge is coming up. Can you introduce us to the event?
Sana Hoda Sood, owner of 12:14 Marketing & Communications. (Courtesy photo)
Sana Hoda Sood: Essentially, it's a robotics hackathon with autonomous vehicles. It brings together MARZ, the U.S. Army, and a handful of tech partners from around the country to put together this hackathon, which is an all day event from 9am to 4pm. We're opening it up to high schoolers; the bulk of the kids who will be there are rising juniors and seniors. And even if they've never been to a hackathon or have no prior robotics experience before, all experience levels are welcome. The only prerequisite that we ask for is a love for STEM and a curiosity about learning.

Essentially what will happen is you'll get to the event, somebody from our team will introduce what the challenge is, how the robots work, and how you program a robot, and then the kids will send their robots through a series of mazes that they’ll have to navigate after being programmed. There are different levels of mazes, they go from easy to difficult, and students are going to be working in teams. The teams that perform the best will get cash prizes – we do Amazon gift cards and we find that kids love those the most. We're also having breakfast and lunch catered by local restaurants, and an ice cream truck.

Perhaps what's most exciting is we're going to have mentors from the U.S. Army. So people who work at the most high tech jobs in the country – and perhaps even the world, in terms of AI and robotics – those mentors are going to be there helping the students perform the challenge, answer questions, as well as share information about scholarship opportunities and mentorship opportunities with the U.S. government. A lot of people don't realize that the U.S. government doesn't just hire uniformed people, that you can have civilian jobs in the U.S. Army. There are a ton of AI and tech jobs that the U.S. government is hiring for. So the folks that are going to be there from the Army will talk to the students a little bit about internships and scholarships that you can apply for, as well.

Metromode: Can you tell us about the synergy there? Between Sterling Heights, the defense industry, and organizations like MARZ?

Sana: I think Michigan overall has had a long, rich history of being aligned with the Army and with the military, in general. There are a lot of colleges that do ROTC-type programs, a lot of young adults from Michigan that tend to work for the government, or get jobs in the army. But this event in particular mostly happened because of (organizer and Sterling Heights resident) Ben McMartin. He's really the one that brought all those pieces together. We've been very fortunate because Ben has been able to pull in his army contacts and have them there. MARZ is a great organization with experience in robotics hackathons. The City of Sterling Heights has been extremely supportive. The mayor of Sterling Heights will be attending the event and he's opening it up and will be giving a keynote. All of the vendors that are coming, whether they are vendors for tables and chairs, whether they are vendors or food, they're all local. So it's been really wonderful to see how the community as well as the broader U.S. Army has come together with us.

Metromode: And why is an event like this important for students and Sterling Heights?

Sana: Because students that love STEM should know that there is a world of opportunity in STEM and that they can certainly make careers out of it. They can get financial aid through a love for STEM, and it's also important for them to realize that there is a wide variety of opportunities within the public sector. I think a lot of times the popular thinking is that the private sector is where technological advances happen. But that's really not true. The public sector, especially the Department of Defense, has some of the most high tech labs out there, and the way that they're using AI and robotics in defense of the country is pretty spectacular.

The students don't have to pay anything to participate, and it doesn't matter if you can afford to go to robotics events or even own a robot. It doesn't matter if you've never done one before and don't have the money for it. To be able to learn that there's a world of opportunity that the Department of Defense has for them, and that STEM can go from being a hobby to being a career – and a career that, like I said, is in defense and protection of the country – is an incredible cause.

Space is limited for the AI Ground Vehicle Hackathon Challenge, and registration is free and available online. The event is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 13, at the Advanced Manufacturing Commercialization Center (AMCC) in Sterling Heights.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.