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FIRST Robotics World Championship Showcases Michigan’s Future STEM Talent

By: Michael Lewis II

When it comes to the future of autonomous and connected vehicles, talent is a major component of Michigan’s next-generation mobility leadership. With more than 150,000 engineers and world-class colleges and universities, the Detroit region is already a prime spot for companies in the mobility industry. Last week, Michigan put the future of its engineering talent pool on full display in downtown Detroit.

More than 35,000 people traveled to the Motor City for the FIRST Robotics World Championship at Cobo Center. Nearly 15,000 students, 640 robots and 700 teams from around the world came to compete.

Gail Alpert, president of FIRST in Michigan, said the program is focused on introducing kids to the STEM careers at an early age. This concept of incubating young talent has received enormous buy-in from representatives of the automotive industry and state government, making Michigan one of the leading participants in the program.

“At its heart, this is about growing the next generation of STEM professionals,” said Alpert. “Automotive companies were some of the early adopters of FIRST in Michigan, and even during the recession they continued to support us because they knew that when they came out of the recession, they were going to need our kids.”

Alpert added that once FIRST secured the support of the automotive industry, Governor Snyder made it his goal to insert the program in as many Michigan schools as possible.

“The governor came to our state championship, loved it, and pledged to get FIRST into every single school and designed a grant to take away all of the barriers of entry,” she said.

In total, Michigan accounts for a quarter of the districts operating the FIRST program with 601 teams in the state, the most in the country. Michigan’s dedication to the program was also reflected through the performance of its teams at the world Championship.

Michigan dominated in the playoffs with 12 of the 24 teams competing in the semifinals and six of the eight teams competing in the final round.

While automotive companies serve as the foundation for Michigan’s FIRST programs, sponsorship has spread to companies across different industries. Alpert said it is important to remember that these companies sponsor kids as more than a community outreach effort. She said the companies are keen on bringing students through the program so that they may work for them in the future.

“These companies want our kids. The idea of just giving money is not what they want, they want to touch these kids,” said Alpert. “They’re giving them mentors who work for them, real engineers, their programmers and their electricians who are getting to know the students on the teams. The impact is massive because they’re learning, hands on, the impact of technology while the companies identify who would be perfect to come work for them.”

The impact is apparent in Alexandra Holt, a senior at Grand Haven High School (GHHS). Her team, known as the Buc N’Gears, is sponsored by global automotive supplier and MICHauto investor Shape Corporation. Holt said the program introduced her to STEM and, as a result, she has been working as a part-time manufacturing intern with Herman Miller, Inc.

“I wouldn’t have known about STEM if my school didn’t have robotics through our tech center,” Holt said. “I recognized Herman Miller as a sponsor of our early college program and next thing I knew, I was an intern.”

Holt is currently dual enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College and GHHS, taking high school and college classes by day and interning by night. She added that this experience is invaluable to her future career.

“It has put me years ahead of where I would have been,” Holt said. “The skills of working with people, a budget, time crunches and designing as a team wouldn’t have come from anywhere but here.”