Michigan students learn problem-solving, teamwork with robotics

Teaching children that they can solve problems is at the heart of FIRST’s mission.

Children compete at FIRST robotics competition.

Sheldon Wilson is only in fifth grade, but he has a lofty goal: To use solar energy to end suffering from power outages.

“A month ago my dad’s power had went out, and I just want to do this so it never happens again to other people,” says Wilson when describing his project as part of the FIRST LEGO League Challenge. “It was very cold and I would never want that to happen again. Thankfully we got the power back and we are very happy now.”

Teaching children that they can solve problems — and helping them acquire the skills to invent and test solutions — is at the heart of FIRST’s mission. An international organization that runs LEGO robotics competitions, FIRST’s stated goal is to teach science, technology, engineering and math through hands-on learning. The organization was founded in 1989 and competitions began in 1992.

Anna Sterner, the Michigan Science Center’s director of programs, said robotics is a great entry point into STEM.

“It teaches you a lot of things like creative problem-solving or critical thinking skills, and I think the most important thing that FIRST does a really good job of teaching kids is teamwork,” says Sterner. “No scientist, engineer, robotics professional works alone. You always work in a team. You can create more and accomplish more that way. So they do a really good job of talking to teams about the importance of competing against the clock and not competing against each other because we’re all here to learn and have fun.“

That sense of teamwork — “coopertition” as FIRST’s brands it — is one of four areas that teams are judged on. How well they design their robots and perform in the obstacle course game are also considered, as are their innovation projects like Wilson’s solar panels.

And for many of the teams meeting in Detroit, it all comes together in a matter of weeks.

Teams quickly learn to build robots

Ann Burn, a coach with the team from Southwest Detroit nonprofit Mercy Education Project, has been involved in FIRST since 2015. But the students on her team this year started in mid-August — about 12 weeks before their first competition.

“That’s when they started learning what the theme was and learning their core values,” says Burn.

“When you think about them doing research, an innovation project, designing a robot, engineering a mission, making the robots do the mission — it’s pretty impressive what they get done. We’re really happy to have girls in tutoring and then to have a program that incorporates everything they’re learning in tutoring and build STEM and STEAM skills.”

Still, it is quite an undertaking for a nonprofit program that meets once a week to prepare a team of elementary school students for a robotics competition. There is a cost for the robotics kits that each team must have, and there is a new edition each year. There are also the daily costs of printer paper for research projects, transportation to the after school program and food.

“You can’t take kids on a field trip without buying snacks,” Burn said. “I think the biggest thing is that funders come and go and the need never changes. It’s incredible just to keep lights on in the building.”

Most of the teams are based in schools rather than nonprofits, but all must raise funds to support their robotics programs.

Donya Jackson-Coleman, a preschool teacher at Marion Law Academy, echoed the concerns about cost.

“The t-shirts, the supplies, this stuff is not cheap. So yes, we have a lot of sponsorship,” Jackson-Coleman said. “You have to get the whole kit each year. And it’s a different set of LEGO pieces, a different set of rules. And so every year somebody got to purchase that so we can use it.”

Jackson-Coleman listed Rocket Community Fund, DPSCD, FIRST of Michigan, and Motor City Alliance, a consortium of Michigan FIRST robotics teams and industry professionals, among the sponsors for the Marion Law Builders.

Sterner, the director of programs, said Rocket Community Fund sponsored the competition’s registration fee for all Detroit public schools. Food and transportation the day of the event was also covered.

“FIRST in Michigan also has a lot of programs where they will give a team everything they need in order to compete,” Sterner shared. “They are always trying to grow new teams, have even more of these competitions. So they have a lot of really awesome programs that allow people to participate at virtually no cost to them.”

There can be disparities in resources between schools, but Sterner said some of those differences were mitigated by having a competition where the teams vying to go to state finals come from similar backgrounds.

“The big benefit here by letting the Detroit teams compete against each other (is) they’re coming from the same network of coaches,” Sterner explains. “A lot of these Detroit public school teams are coached by a teacher at their school, which is awesome.”

Sterner continues: “But we do sometimes have teams compete from outside who do come in with more resources…from an area where they have access to more experts in the field who are able to coach their team. And so there are disparities when you look across the state, but we’re really thankful that here at our competition most of our teams are coming from the same background and the same school district so it’s a pretty level and fair playing field.”

Volunteers model diversity in STEM

For Meghan Daily, a volunteer with the Michigan Science Center, being a role model is just as important as having a background in science and engineering. Daily has a master’s degree in robotics from the University of Michigan and volunteered as a judge at the competition.

“It’s very difficult to see yourself being successful when you don’t see someone that looks like you being successful,” says Daily. “I just really want to be out there and be the person that they can point to and say, ‘Yeah, I see people that look like me that are having fun and being successful in this field, so I would like to do that too.’”

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