Robotics teams gearing up for a new season of competition

When it comes to a love of science, many students are finding one at school, as part of their robotics team.

The Cardinal Mooney Robosapiens make adjustments on their robot.Teams like the Yale Jiggawattz and Cardinal Mooney Robosapiens have kicked off a new season, and are eager to test their robotics prowess at competitions this spring.

Across the state, interest in robotics is booming and in April, FIRST--For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology-- Robotics will host its annual championship games, sometimes known as Worlds, at Cobo Hall and Ford Field in downtown Detroit.

Last season Michigan fielded the highest number of FRC teams in the country, at 450. California came in second at 269.

FIRST Robotics Competition is the high school tournament under the FIRST Championship umbrella, which has separate events for children, starting at age 6. FRC competitors are given six weeks to design and build a robot fitting with a theme and challenges that change annually.

This year's competition has an arcade theme. The challenge: teams are trapped inside an eight-bit video game and must find a way to defeat the boss and escape.

There are 3,336 FRC teams from 25 countries, and two from St. Clair County made it to Worlds in St. Louis last year, the Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School RoboSapiens and the Yale Senior High School Jiggawattz. Both are part of the Blue Water Area Robotics Alliance.

After attending the robotics state championships four years ago Gov. Rick Snyder said robotics was a great tie in to education and as a way to stop the shortage of the technology work force in Michigan. He proposed grants and started working with FIRST in Michigan; the two had ideas that aligned perfectly.

Gail Alpert, president of FIRST in Michigan, made a list of every high school in the state. Her goal is to get robotics in each one. She divided the mitten into 16 areas, and has been working to see which areas are lacking.

Since 2014, these grants have aided rookie teams, and 70 or 80 popped up that year. Michigan Department of Education FRC grants help rookie teams pay their first year’s kit of parts, registration fees, a coach stipend, and more.

The results have been dramatic. Alpert says FIRST teams can be found in almost half of the high schools in the state. Growth is expected to continue as Alpert works toward her goal, and teams get so big they split.

She recalls getting word out about robotics in the Blue Water Region.

“St. Clair is amazing. When we decided there were enough teams in the area to run an event there, little did I know the EDA would jump on board and have all the funds we needed raised in six weeks, and how excited these companies are,” she says.

The positive impact is helping the state. Students and their careers are being influenced by their after-school activity.

According to FIRST, FRC competitors have 88 percent more interest in doing well in school, and 92 percent are more interested in attending college. FIRST participants are twice as likely to major in science or engineering.

“People say if you can compete at the Michigan state championships, you can compete in Worlds, just because of the amount of teams we have and the experience level our teams have. Some of the oldest teams in FIRST come from Michigan,” former Yale robotics captain and cofounder Thomas Tesluck told The Keel.

“The rewards from this program are unbeatable. You can’t get this experience anywhere else,” he says.Port Huron Robotics talk with members of the Yale Jiggawattz before a competition.

Tesluck, and several of his teammates have graduated, knowing the skills they learned in robotics helped prepare them for the future.

Robotics students aren’t walking away with only the obvious STEM skills. FIRST says its participants walk away with many benefits: 98 percent have improved problem solving skills, 95 percent more effectively manage time, 93 percent have better conflict resolution skills, and more than 76 percent strengthen their communication skills after competing. The teams have to fundraise, work with peers and businesses, and manage all aspects of the season.

“This is very close to what I have to deal with every day in the working world. We have tight budgets, time constraints, and unforeseen problems. Everything that happens in the real world happens with FIRST,” Don Walker, head mentor for Da MOOse Team 5926 from St. Clair County, says.

Colleges across the country offer over $50 million in scholarships to FIRST students, $30 million of that for high schoolers.

“STEM is pretty wide ranging. You have electrical, mechanical, programming, chemical engineering, materials, work ethic, I mean everything. They (FIRST teams) understand what a career looks like. They’re offered these scholarships because our kids are not a risk. They know what they want to do,” Alpert says.

Then there are the personal benefits. FIRST brands itself as “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.” Although the commitment and challenges are constant, the robotics community is an enthusiastic and excited one.

Walker’s son, Samuel, was involved with robotics for many years.

“The first time I ever went to a robotics meeting in eighth grade, my father texted my mother to ask how I was doing. My mother wrote back, ‘He’s with his own kind.’ It’s a place I found I can fit in,” Samuel Walker told The Keel.

Now in college at Michigan Tech, Samuel still serves as a robotics mentor, via Skype or in person when he gets the chance to come home.

FIRST values two tenets that are always in play. Gracious Professionalism guides students to challenge other teams while respecting them. Coopertition is a mix of competition and cooperation. You will often find teams helping their opponents while at events. These factors not only make the tournaments fun, they can help friendships form and the allow teams to compete against each other while at their very best.

Any Michigan school hoping to start a FIRST team should get in touch with FIRST in Michigan at

The Yale Jiggawattz robotics team takes a team portrait at Worlds.
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