High school students in Troy raise the bar for science

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published June 12, 2018

TROY — The last school bell for the day sounded at Martell Elementary School June 7. 

As most of the students scurried outside, about 20 students, the Benzene Buddies, stayed after, and under the direction of the Benzene Bots high school crew, they devised structures from toothpicks and gummy bears, then piled a hardcover dictionary on top to see how much weight their structures could bear. 

The Team 4384 Benzene Bots, of the FIRST Robotics Competition — which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — comprises 35 students from the International Academy-East and Troy and Athens high schools who have spent each Thursday afternoon this year mentoring the Martell students. 

Troy High School graduating senior Danielle Boyer spearheaded the group and a number of outreach programs designed to get younger students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. 

IA East junior Sanket Nawak serves as the Benzene Bots team captain. He was named a Dean’s List Award winner at the 2018 FIRST Robotics World Championships, held in Detroit April 25-28. According to the FIRST website, the award recognizes FIRST participants’ “exemplary passion and effectiveness in achieving the mission of FIRST.” High school sophomores and juniors are nominated by their peers for the award. From that pool, a panel of judges from industry, government and education select finalists and winners. 

The Benzene Bots also won the Pit Safety Award at that championship competition, and Boyer hosted a two-hour conference on branding. 

The team garnered the Entrepreneurship Award at the Michigan championship competition at Saginaw Valley State University April 11-14. 

“It was awesome. It was so much fun,” Boyer said. 

The Benzene Bots’ mission, according to a prepared statement, is “not only to inspire students’ interest in STEM, but to prepare students for the future and equip them with the skills necessary to be successful, being a consistent resource every stage of the learning process.” 

To that end, the Benzene Bots have devised and conducted 20 outreach programs in the Troy School District. 

“We want to be a consistent resource to the community,” Boyer said. “We think it’s really important. We’ve done a lot of cool things. It’s been amazing.” 

Martinrea International Inc., an automotive supplier with a new tech center in Auburn Hills, is the team’s major sponsor. Other sponsors are Valeo, American Axle, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, American Axle and InVanse. 

Martinrea designed a 40-by-40-foot room dedicated to the Benzene Bots in the company’s new 108,000-square-foot facility, said Benzene Bots head coach Jim Kemp. 

“It can cost $5,000 to go to an event,” said Kemp. 

The Benzene Bots offer a STEM camp at IA-East, teaching business and engineering skills to elementary school students. They produce a weekly robotics newsletter circulated to 200 teachers and parents, and they have 1,000 followers on Instagram. 

In an effort to make STEM pursuits and robotics accessible and affordable for all students, Nawak invented a kit called Every Kid Gets a Robot with assistance from Kemp and his company, Powerhouse Electronics, based in Troy, which cost $50 apiece. 

“The Lego Mindstorm (robotics kit) can cost upward of $500,” said Boyer, who noted that EKGAR has capabilities similar to Mindstorm. 

Nawak lived in California and moved to Troy when he was 14. 

“My parents are immigrants (from India), and we struggled financially,” he said.

His parents eventually got jobs at Stanford University, one as a professor and the other as a lab assistant. 

Nawak said he loves soccer, math and science. He won regional awards for soccer in elementary school. 

“Robotics is expensive,” he said. “It was unrealistic to join teams for $200 or $300. It was a big expense for us, so I would build robots on my own.” 

“When I got involved in FIRST, what I saw (expenses precluding many from participating) was much more widespread than I thought. So I tried to make a robot cheaper.” 

Benzene Buddy Olivia Sibley, a fifth-grader at Martell Elementary School, likes to watch the robots race. 

She went with the Benzene Bots to the Oakland County Competitive Robotics Association competition. She said she enjoys watching the teams compete at tournaments and participating in the activities the Benzene Bots do with the younger students.

“It’s not just about what you’re building, but who you’re working with. Everyone has their own perspective,” she said.

“We’re excited to be doing this,” Boyer said. 

Follow the Benzene Bots on Instagram: @benzenebots4384.