University Hills Elementary students brainstorm ideas for their FIRST Lego League robotics assignment Oct. 8 at Rochester High School.

University Hills Elementary students brainstorm ideas for their FIRST Lego League robotics assignment Oct. 8 at Rochester High School.

Photo by Sarah Purlee


Elementary robotics programs inspire students to build a better future

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published October 16, 2019

 FIRST in Michigan mentor Peter Pirozzo gives Hampton Elementary students  in grades four and five instructions during the FIRST Lego League robotics  club meeting Oct. 8 at Rochester High School.

FIRST in Michigan mentor Peter Pirozzo gives Hampton Elementary students in grades four and five instructions during the FIRST Lego League robotics club meeting Oct. 8 at Rochester High School.

Photo by Sarah Purlee

METRO DETROIT — With the number of high-paying jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fields growing by the day, many schools and businesses across the nation are providing more opportunities for students to engage in robotics, building STEM skills at an earlier age than ever before.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, employment in STEM-related occupations is projected to grow to more than 9 million jobs between 2012 and 2022 — an increase of about 1 million jobs over 2012 employment levels.

Gail Alpert, the president of FIRST in Michigan — which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — said the nonprofit, international youth organization helps create the next generation of STEM-ready workers through its innovative robotics programs, which now begin in preschool and end in high school.

“If you look at every single company and you talk to them about their needs for a future workforce, all of them will tell you that they need skilled trades and STEM professionals … and this is what we are growing on our teams,” she said.

If you ask anyone involved, FIRST is much more than a program about building robots; it’s about preparing young students for a successful future.

“Kids want to change the world. They’re our best hope for a future. So if we can give them those skills and open their minds to the innovation mindset early … they can go make improvements,” Alpert said.

The organization’s goal is to have a sustainable FIRST robotics team at every high school in the state. In order to achieve that mission, Alpert said, kids have to get started down the path early.

“Students have lots of choices and paths that they can take on their way up, but if we can catch them early and engage them when their mind is open to technology and they are literally a (sponge) for all kinds of information, we know we can achieve our mission,” Alpert said.

FIRST in Michigan was started in 2009 to run all of the kindergarten through grade 12 FIRST robotics programs within the state. Today, Michigan leads the nation with the highest number of FIRST teams in high schools and early elementary schools, according to Alpert. FIRST in Michigan is second in the nation for teams at the middle school level and fifth for late elementary teams.

Within the last couple of years, the FIRST robotics program has seen major growth across Michigan school districts.

“Last year, we went from 47 districts in Michigan that were running all four of our programs — we have early elementary through grade three, late elementary, middle school and high school — and we are now at 87. It’s growing like hotcakes,” Alpert said. “It’s all about a culture of innovation. That’s what we are trying to bring at an early age.”   

Locally, in the Rochester Community Schools district, FIRST robotics teams at the elementary level — called FIRST Lego League Jr. for students ages 6-10 and FIRST Lego League for students ages 9-16 — have been booming.

RCS district grandparent Peter Pirozzo, a longtime FIRST in Michigan mentor for various schools in the district, was instrumental in launching the FIRST robotics teams at Hampton Elementary School this year.

Initially, Pirozzo was hoping to start a team or two at Hampton to give his kindergarten grandson an early start with robotics, so he approached school officials with the idea. With their support — and with the help of Shishir Gupta, the lead mentor for Rochester High School’s FIRST robotics competition team — the FEDS, or Falcon Engineering Design Solutions — Pirozzo was able to open up 12 robotics teams for Hampton students. Gupta and the FEDS offered to support Pirozzo’s efforts by covering all the registration costs for the school’s new teams, providing mentors from the FEDS and coordinating the logistics so the teams could meet at Rochester High School.

Over at Meadow Brook Elementary School, district parents Antonio and Evita Vittorini launched 10 FIRST Lego League Jr. teams last year for 60 students, including their oldest son, who was in first grade at the time. The couple, both engineers who now serve as the school’s lead FIRST Lego League Jr. coaches, said they wanted to help students become more interested in STEM.

“We were very interested in trying to bring the program to the school to make engineering and other STEM fields very engaging and fun for kids to make them want to pursue careers in STEM,” said Antonio Vittorini.

This year, they added seven additional First Lego League Jr. teams and launched three new First Lego League teams at the school, for a total of 20 FIRST robotics teams.

“In order for students to develop stronger teamwork skills and stronger communication skills, as well as problem solving, robotics really enables them a hands-on approach to get those skills,” said Antonio Vittorini. “They are also able to be creative, but I think one of the most important things is the students are able to fail and see failure as a way to continue to try and develop skills they might not be good at. If they don’t get it right the first time, they can try again.”

This year’s program pushes students to explore topics related to architecture, infrastructure and sustainability for future cities. Along with robotics and computer programming skills, students learn how to communicate, strategize and problem solve. They are taught core values such as inclusion, discovery, innovation, impact, teamwork and of course, fun. At the middle school and, high school levels, FIRST teams learn about gracious professionalism and what Pirozzo calls “coopertition” — helping and cooperating with opponents and competing against them when appropriate.

“FIRST is not just about building robots; it’s using robots to teach kids to inspire students into STEM (careers),” he said.

Companies like The Robot Garage are forming across the nation to give students without FIRST robotics programs at their schools access to highly sought-after STEM skills.

Sarah Jacobs and her husband, Jonathan, opened The Robot Garage in Birmingham in 2011. It was so well-received that they decided to expand and open a Rochester Hills location in 2014.

The couple, who have three daughters, decided to start the business after their oldest daughter, Jane, began to compete in the FIRST robotics program and really flourished. When her team made it to the state finals, the couple realized that students who do not have robotics teams at their schools had no access to the programs, so they opened The Robot Garage.  

Today, The Robot Garage works with over 200 schools and thousands of students in camps and after-school classes, and even runs boot camps for FIRST Robotics Competition rookie teams.

“For the kids who love Lego, there is this next step, and they go straight into robotics,” Sarah Jacobs said. “Once they start adding motors and gears to the Lego bricks kids are used to building with, all of a sudden, instead of just building static things, kids can start to build these things in their imagination they’ve never been able to build before. They can make things that move, and it’s huge.”

To find out if your school has a FIRST robotics team, email Gail Alpert at gail.alpert@gmail.com.

For more information about FIRST in Michigan, visit www.firstinmichigan.org.