GENESEE COUNTY, Michigan—They shoot. They score.
They work with speed and agility.
They plan strategically, work together as a team, and are in a constant state of refinement as they practice and compete in the brain-teasing triathlon.
Here in Genesee County, training starts when some kids are just 6 years old, we’ve got unique practice facilities, and our teams rank among the best in the nation and world.
Plus an astounding number of players turn pro.
Welcome to the amazing world of competitive robotics.
Chances are that if you don’t know about robotics, you don’t understand it—but know this: Genesee County robotics teams are among the best of the best. And when we think about our community’s tradition for excellence in basketball, football, boxing—well, it is definitely time to add robotics to that list.
Home to champions
To get an idea for just how big robotics is here, consider this …
- Genesee County has more than 40 robotics teams, about the same as the entire state of Wisconsin.
- FIRST Robotics Community Center at Kettering University is the only facility of its kind on a college campus. It is home to eight area high school teams and one of the few official practice fields in the nation, used by dozens of other teams as they train for competitions.
- Michigan has 454 robotics teams—more than any other state in the nation. About 10 percent of those teams are in Genesee County.
- And, we win. A lot.
In the FIRST Robotics competition, multiple Genesee County teams will compete April 12-15 in the state championship—and expect some winners to do well enough to go on to the world championship.
And, in the VEX Robotics competition, Carman-Ainsworth’s Mo’ Peeps and Even Mo’ Peeps teams are headed April 19-22 to the world championships—following in the footsteps of the trailblazing Carman-Ainsworth team Da’ Peeps, which won the World Championship in 2009.
“This is the fastest growing sport in the state of Michigan,” said Bob Nichols, director of the FIRST Robotics Center at Kettering University.
Leanne Welch, a third-grade teacher at Rankin Elementary School and coach of the Peeps teams, will take 13 students to Louisville, Ky., where 160 teams from around the world will compete in the Vex Robotics championship.
Her students work at robotics 4:30 to 8 p.m. after school and from noon to 8 p.m. on weekends.
“They are very self-motivated, they know what to do. They come in ready to go and just keep working until they get the job done, and then sign up for a new one,” Welch said.
OK, so what the heck is a robotics competition?
Well, it’s serious business (and also fun), said Mark Taylor, program director for the FIRST Robotics Center at Kettering, as he gave a tour of the one-of-a-kind facility.
Even for the not so STEM-inclined, he patiently explains each step of the robotics competition and quickly his enthusiasm is contagious as he peels away layer after layer of the competition and the subculture surrounding it.
To understand it, let’s look specifically at FIRST Robotics competitions. They bring together teams of students, usually about 10 to 15, to build a robot designed to earn them as many points as possible by completing any, all, or part of three distinct tasks.
The best teams’ robots typically complete all three tasks, but it is not required. The tasks change every year and are announced at a special kickoff party hosted at a select few places around the country (including Kettering University).
After the challenges are announced, teams get six weeks and three days to build their robots. Some teams use hand tools or whatever they have available. The Kettering facility uses equipment donated by General Motors that measures to 1/100th of an inch.
Teams earn points based on how well they complete each task in the brain-teasing triathlon. This year’s tasks include whizzing their robots across the field to collect and deliver oversize gears, to collect and shoot wiffle balls, and to have the robot raise itself in the air. Seriously.
In first 15 seconds of each match, the robots move based on automated movements (preprogramed by the students). The rest of the 2 minute and 15 second competition, the robot is controlled through a joystick controller.
It’s loud, chaotic, and intense.
And, fun, said Lydia Minzey, 12, Carman-Ainsworth Middle School student.
“I started in fourth grade. My teacher noticed that I was doing well and so he decided to put me in something where I would excel but also have fun with it. It turned out to be robotics,” Lydia said. “It was really, really cool to be a fourth-grader and walk into a room where we were programming, we were building things and learning things about STEM, and it was something that I am very happy to be a part of and everyone should be a part of.”
Throughout competition season, teams continue to make adjustments to make their machines better than before. Heck, even during competitions they do it, using onsite pits for repairs and adjustments.
Here’s the thing, though: All of this is about way more than robotics.
It’s about teamwork, leadership, communicating effectively and performing under pressure.
“It’s really a research project, and about coming up with ideas to solve problems,” Nichols said.
While all that work is being done to build a robot, judges are combing through the competition and asking students questions, testing their knowledge and understanding of the work.
So, whether you did the Java programming or not, every member of the team has to be ready at all times to talk about every aspect of their complex machines.
Interestingly, judges aren’t the only ones milling around the pits. There are also college recruiters.
These young minds are a hot commodity. One-third of all Kettering University students have been involved in robotics and—like many other universities—they work hard to lure these top-tier students to their school.
Kettering was the third university in the nation to offer scholarships for robotics students back in 1999. Now, hundreds of universities do. This year, Kettering handed out 37 robotics scholarships bringing the total value of it robotics scholarships to $3.8 million.
But, it’s not just colleges milling around these competitions. Companies also are climbing over one another to sponsor the events.
Ford, for example, is picking up the tab for a special robotics camp for Flint students at Kettering this summer that will be 100 percent free for families.
Ford and General Motors aren’t doing this to sell cars. They are doing this to recruit future employees who will help them build (and sell) the best cars five, 10, and 15 years from now.
“It’s really fun and really exciting, and I know that I’m going to be able to apply this to the future no matter what job I do, even if I’m not an engineer. I can use the teamwork and problem-solving skills in whatever job I get,” Lydia said.
Yes, the 12-year-old said that.