They’re a rookie team. And there are only three of them. But what they lack in size they more than make up for in enthusiasm and confidence.
That’s been key to the success this year for the Pershing Doughbots, the robotics team from Pershing High School in Detroit, an Education Achievement Authority school. In their first year as a robotics team, the trio — led by teacher Caitlin Kozak — did well enough in qualifying competitions to compete in the state championships.
“It’s like a miracle, really,” said junior Antwain Jones, 16. “This is the most fun I’ve ever experienced.”
That state competition — part of the 2015 Michigan FIRST Robotics season — began Thursday and continues through Saturday in Grand Rapids. It will be the biggest state finals since the competition began in 2009. To accommodate the huge growth in robotics teams in the state — from 137 teams five years ago to 347 teams today — organizers expanded the competition to allow more teams. Instead of 64 teams, 102 are competing.
Michigan already has more robotics teams than any other state. And on Thursday, Gov. Rick Snyder announced a major development: Detroit will be one of two cities hosting the finals of the world competition from 2018-20. The competition will be held at CoboCenter and Ford Field.
Gail Alpert, president of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in Michigan, the nonprofit organization that runs the robotics program in the state, said the growth has happened because Snyder and lawmakers have provided funding in recent years so schools can create more teams. That additional money, which comes in the form of grants, has taken away barriers to competing. Snyder has identified FIRST Robotics as a critical part of state efforts to encourage more people to go into science, technology, engineering and math fields (STEM).
“Districts that never ever thought they had the means to participate in FIRST robotics now can and are,” Alpert said.
FIRST is part of a worldwide competition. Teams that do well this weekend can qualify for the world competition in St. Louis later this month.
Robotics requires students to work alongside adult mentors to build a robot that can play a game with other robots during competitions. Each year the theme changes. This year the game is called Recycle Rush and it requires three teams and their robots to compete as part of two alliances, with the robots scoring points by stacking totes on platforms, capping those stacks with recycling containers and disposing of pool noodles.
Kozak teaches introductory STEM classes at Pershing. This year is the school’s first foray into robotics.
“A big part of our success is that our team is very humble,” Kozak said. “We don’t let success get to our heads. They’re also very confident.”
Most robotics teams can boast large numbers of students. The Pershing team started the season with about seven members, but that’s been cut to three because some students had other obligations.
“We put in teamwork, we believe in one another. I think that helped us out a lot,” said junior Emario Johnson, 17.
During the first match of the team’s first competition, Antwain operated the robot. He didn’t do so well, but by the time the second match started, something had changed.
“I don’t know what happened. It was like in the movies, and everything just slowed down. It was like the most amazing feeling in the world.”
Antwain did much of the mechanical work on the robot. But the team heavily credits the assistance of MEZ, the Michigan Engineering Zone, for helping them succeed. MEZ is a University of Michigan group that provides mentors — both professionals and college students — to help robotics teams in Detroit. It’s one of the team’s multiple sponsors.
Being involved in robotics has taught Emario one thing.
“It’s more than just a competition. It’s about cooperating with other people. It’s about making new friends.”
By Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, email@example.com or @LoriAHiggins