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Robots to invade Detroit for global competition

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Inside the Michigan Engineering Zone, it was time to give “Tink,” a robot built by students at Detroit’s Pershing High School, some rivets.

Calvin Harvey III from Henry Ford High School, works on his team’s robot, preparing for this month’s FIRST competition.

Safety glasses on and her red hair tied back, 15-year-old student Delann Pillivant grabbed the robot’s aluminum frame and pushed a power drill into its center bar, making the modification for an upcoming global robotics competition coming this month to Detroit.

Pillivant spent most of her first year at the facility, known as the “MEZ,” watching older students on the Pershing robotics team take the lead in building a robot from scratch, modifying it for FIRST Robotics competitions.

This year, Pillivant is in the driver’s seat — literally — for the robotics team, which comes to the MEZ in Midtown every week to get training in science, technology, engineering and math and hands-on experience building robotics for competitions.

“I was in robotics last year. We had one guy, a senior, who did everything and I was just observing. And now I am the driver. That means I drive the robot, give it love and do doughnuts,” Pillivant said at the facilty last week. “We don’t have specific jobs. We all do everything. I connected this motor controller here.”

Robotics will take center stage later this month when tens of thousands of students from across the world descend on Detroit for the competition. The FIRST Championship — in which student teams battle robots on a playing field — marks the first time the event will be held in Michigan, and it arrives in the Motor City at a time when interest and participation in robotics have exploded across the state, organizers say.

With 15,240 students on 508 teams, Michigan has the most high school robotics teams in the nation. It also boasts another 1,536 teams in grades K-8, according to Gail Alpert, president of the non-profit, FIRST in Michigan, which passes grant money to school teams to prepare and compete. FIRST stands “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

Of the 400 teams from around the world competing at FIRST in Detroit from April 25-29, about 90 will be from Michigan, state officials said.

Alpert said interest in robotics has been fueled by state grants given to K-12 school robotics programs that pay for the programs’ costs. Having the world robotics championship in Michigan is a game-changer, Alpert said. Michigan will host the world competition each year through 2020.

“The fact that it is within our state makes it so much more accessible to our students. It’s giving FIRST robotics huge visibility in the state,” she said.

Growing STEM interest

The MEZ, created and operated by the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering in 2010, has helped 2,800 Detroit high school students get exposure to hands-on STEM experience that goes beyond what they can get in their individual high schools.

Pillivant said being on the team has taught her team-building skills “because I don’t ‘people’ very well. I mean, who doesn’t want to connect robot stuff? It’s fun.”

The MEZ on Woodward is a 5,200-square-foot innovation space that has a computer lab and full-service machine shop to accommodate 19 teams. There, each robotics team gets a dedicated workstation, equipment and parts storage and a cadre of mentors from professional engineers and students at UM graduate and undergraduate programs.

Jeanne Murabito, executive director of student affairs at the UM College of Engineering, said the reason for the MEZ and UM’s commitment to the program is to grow interest in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and get Detroit students especially involved. Most Detroit high schools lack the tools, resources and staff to support a robotics team in their own buildings.

“Since we started this, we have had several cities come and look at our model,” said Murabito, including Kansas City and Rochester, New York. “We were the first in the country to do this.”

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, said the MEZ gives students a hands-on learning environment where real job skills are practiced, from team problem-solving to critical thinking.

“This is a something we will look to expand by including more schools and students,” Vitti said.

In the FIRST robotics competition, teams have six weeks to build and program robots from a kit to perform tasks, such as picking up a ball and throwing it. Teams also have to raise money, design a team brand, hone teamwork skills and perform community outreach.

Detroit teams return to the MEZ during the school year to modify and troubleshoot for upcoming competitions, including a shot at the FIRST competition in Detroit. Julian Pate, director of the MEZ, said schools interested in pursuing a robotics team must interact with FIRST robotics organization to establish a team, which range from three members to 20.

“People think that you pay the fee, you get a box and everything that is required is in the box. Not true,” Pate said. “What’s in the box is the minimum required to build the chassis. Everything above the chassis to be able to successfully play the game is an outgrowth of the team’s own creativity. Their approach to innovation and how they would play the game.”

After schools are enlightened on the demands, the MEZ provides space, materials and mentors, he said. The Detroit district buses the students to the MEZ. Food for the students is provided through grants and other private financial support.

‘Crazy and vigorous’

Students at the MEZ are given help on college applications and financial aid. Several have wound up attending the University of Michigan, including Jacob Durrah, a 23-year-old who now works at Ford Motor Co.

Durrah attended Finney High School, now East English Village Preparatory Academy, and began going to the MEZ as a sophomore.

“The MEZ I would say propelled me into a career into engineering,” Durrah said. “It was an extremely welcoming environment with mentors, collegiate mentors, who are there to motivate you and tell you can be an engineer no matter where you are starting. They ensure you that you can. They ask inquisitive questions to make you think through problems. They teach you how to solve these problems.”

Durrah recalled a six-week window to build a robot as “crazy and vigorous,” but he also said the exposure to essay writing and SAT preparation for college was life-changing, too. He attended and graduated from UM with a degree in computer science and engineering.

Today, the Detroiter is on Ford’s connectivity team, working on vehicle control and communication as an engineer.

“That exposure and constant encouragement and seeing the results of what you can do if you put your mind to it. I can definitely say that is the reason I am here working for Ford today,” he said.