Opinion: Robotics helps kids explore STEM

Patti Poppe
The Roose Rockets robotics team of Roose Elementary in Warren competes against the Smart Bots of Macomb, not pictured, at ThunderQuest.

You don’t have to know their names or schools, or even where their hometowns are on a map, to know the thousands of students coming to downtown Detroit are about to do something big.

The FIRST Championship for high school robotics students is taking place at Cobo Center this week, and Michigan should take notice. These students are using their talents to build robots and take part in competitions that use every bit of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that you’ll see their parents and other adults use in today’s workplace.

The fact that this world competition takes place in Michigan is huge. Travel elsewhere in the country and you’ll hear people say our state is part of the “Rust Belt.” That’s an outdated term, and it doesn’t reflect the innovation and ingenuity that’s at work every day on factory floors, office towers and other places where engineers, scientists and manufacturers are using technology like never before.

That innovation and ingenuity don’t happen by mistake. Business leaders and entrepreneurs in Michigan are working hard to develop our next generation of leaders, innovators and co-workers that can carry the baton, to start and work for companies that will design new products and continue to keep Michigan at the forefront.

FIRST in Michigan plays a vital role in that, inspiring students of all ages to explore robotics and learn STEM skills in the process. Their work is paying dividends. FIRST in Michigan has over 500 high school teams – more high school robotics teams than any state – with many of them competing this week in Detroit. FIRST has cracked the code on getting students excited about STEM.

We at Consumers Energy are sponsoring this week’s competition and feel we can’t do enough to promote this fun and life-changing program in schools. Our charitable foundation last year contributed more than $450,000 to support STEM programs, including FIRST teams across the state, because we see the need for students to graduate from high school and college and fill demanding jobs with our company and others in Michigan. Doing nothing means Michigan will fall behind in the race for talent.

I’ve seen the FIRST impact personally. My daughters’ lives were directly influenced by their participation on their high school FIRST robotics team. They are both now seniors in engineering and about to graduate and deploy their gifts and talents to the world! They are not alone. FIRST has opened doors for students to find rewarding careers right here in Michigan and around the world. Did I mention that it is really fun. You must come out and see for yourself. There are no words I can say that can fully capture the FIRST Robotics energy & experience.

A life-changing experience for you or perhaps your company or a young person in your life is as close as Cobo Center through Saturday. Over 40,000 people attended last year. Don’t miss out! Downtown Detroit is the center of it all! There will be food trucks, and the main event is free and inside Cobo. I hope to see you at FIRST Championship in Detroit.

Patti Poppe is president and chief executive officer of Consumers Energy, Michigan’s largest energy provider.