Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills robotics teams receive state grant

By: Brendan Losinski | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 29, 2018

 Automation Nation FIRST Robotics team members, from the left, Grace Schenefelt, Abby Righter, Aliyah Ahmad, coach Bernie Simms and Jane Montgomery pose beside their robot.

Automation Nation FIRST Robotics team members, from the left, Grace Schenefelt, Abby Righter, Aliyah Ahmad, coach Bernie Simms and Jane Montgomery pose beside their robot.

Photo provided by Bernie Simms

BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD HILLS — The Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills school districts’ robotics teams were both awarded a grant to help make their current season possible.

State Rep. Mike McCready, who represents the state’s District 40, announced Jan. 12 the distribution of a combined state grant award of $14,900 to FIRST Robotics programs at the Birmingham Public Schools and Bloomfield Hills Schools districts. Birmingham’s Automation Nation team, which is comprised of students from Groves and Seaholm high schools, was awarded $2,500; 46 robotics programs in Bloomfield Hills received a total of $12,400. The state awarded more than $2.5 million in grants to FIRST programs in both public and nonpublic schools this year.

“I commend Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills for their excellent FIRST Robotics programs,” said McCready in a press release.  FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. “Thanks to the Michigan Department of Education’s continued investment in our schools, students have the ability to learn about science and technology in an engaging and proactive way.”

The Michigan Legislature appropriates the funds for the program, and the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development decides which teams are awarded the grants each year.

“The state of Michigan has had this grant for the last five years, and it has to do with the state of Michigan working to improve the state of technical education throughout the state,” explained Bernie Simms, the coach of the Automation Nation robotics team for Birmingham Public Schools. “They’ve simplified the grant application process, so now you don’t need a professional grant writer to apply, and we’ve gotten it all of the last five years.”

The amount of money granted varies, depending on the district and how new its robotics team is. More recently formed FIRST teams get a lot of money to help them get on their feet, while veteran teams generally get less money because they are already established.

“The grant money is designed to assist our team to purchase supplies and parts to participate in competitions,” said Simms. “This means electronic components, encoders and gyroscopic sensors. The team is broken into a build team, a design group, a community outreach group and so forth. So we also will be using some of this money to do demonstrations at an elementary school or bring younger students in to show them what we’re doing. It also helps to pay for travel (to) competitions.”

The application process begins in the fall, and the money is distributed through the State Aid Fund to the districts between January and June through a series of divided payments.

“We wanted to cast a wide net to help as many teams as possible,” said Dave Murray, communications director for the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development. “They applied, and they would use the money in a lot of ways, such as support for materials, support for working with certain professional mentors and support for traveling to different events. Teams had to show what their needs were, and we tried to find schools that were underrepresented thus far in robotics.”

This season’s game for FIRST high school robotics teams will be a new challenge, and teams’ constructed creations will have to compete in a stylized game during tournaments.

“The 2018 game is called ‘Power Up’ and has both a driver-controlled and autonomous driving portion,” said Simms. “The theme of the game is it resembles an old 1980s video game. Some of the key components are controlling a switch and controlling a scale, and then there’s a hanging component. They need to score cubes on their switch to control a switch and to put them on a scale to control the scale, and then the robot has to hang of its own strength at the end of the match. It’s a good game for teaching planning and coordination.”

Although most robotics teams also get money from their districts and corporate sponsors, Simms said grant money like this is vital for schools to foster robotics and other science, technology, engineering and math-related programming.

“Michigan is the largest state in the country for robotics teams. This state grant keeps a lot of these teams from folding and lets schools grow new teams,” explained Simms. “This all helps prepare students for future skills and future jobs. Engineering, computer programming and so much more is part of robotics. We’re really urging kids to see the importance of these matters, and this grant helps do that.”

“Robotics puts kids together with mentors who use these (STEM) skills every day, and they get to see how those skills are used in the real world as part of good- and great-paying jobs,” added Murray.