Members of the South Lake High School robotics team stand with state Rep. Kevin Hertel and Principal Robert Beato, kneeling. The team recently received a grant from AT&T for its robotics competition.

Members of the South Lake High School robotics team stand with state Rep. Kevin Hertel and Principal Robert Beato, kneeling. The team recently received a grant from AT&T for its robotics competition.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske


Grant makes robotics a reality for South Lake team

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published May 7, 2019

 Freshman Emma Orzechowski demonstrates how the team would operate their robot. Pictured from left are sophomore Steven Monroe, junior Willie Daniels, sophomore Makaila Findley and freshman Calvin Horn.

Freshman Emma Orzechowski demonstrates how the team would operate their robot. Pictured from left are sophomore Steven Monroe, junior Willie Daniels, sophomore Makaila Findley and freshman Calvin Horn.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — FIRST Robotics competition can set students up with skills for a lifetime — but it comes with a price.

“The entry fee is $5,000 a year,” said Nathan Thompson, the robotics coach at South Lake High School.

That covers entry into the competition and a “decent” amount of parts, he said, but he explained that schools can spend much more than that creating a robot that will outlast the competition.

For that, students have to fundraise because the team is an after-school activity, so it is not funded by the district. Some districts can spend double or triple that initial amount building their robot, so a $10,000 grant given to the team from AT&T is much appreciated by the team.

“They’re going to cover pretty much the whole session” for the 2019-20 school year, Thompson said. “It makes it a lot less stressful for the team. It really does take a load off their shoulders.”

This year, he said, nearly the entire eight-member team — himself included — was new. Only one team member, Steven Monroe, who is now a sophomore, remained from last school year.

Monroe said he really enjoyed his time on the team his freshman year.

“Last year, we didn’t really have too many people — just two of us,” he said. “I decided, maybe if I stayed, I could get the team together. I’m going to do this every year till I graduate.”

Lori Doughty, regional director for external affairs at AT&T Michigan, said that the company worked with state Rep. Kevin Hertel, D-St. Clair Shores, to find a school in the area to support. The company’s Aspire initiative works to help improve the graduation rate of students.

“This is like a perfect fit. We do this all around the state, all around the country,” she said.

Hertel said that he thought of South Lake when AT&T asked if there was a program in his legislative district that could benefit from the grant money.

“To me, it made perfect sense,” he said. “We thought it was really important we helped out.”

John Thero, director of instruction and assessment for South Lake Schools, said that the team has been spending $5,000-$6,000 building a robot each year, paying for it with grants and donations. The efforts have paid off, he said.

“We have found that students that go through (FIRST Robotics competition) are prepared for college,” he said.

Participation in the team opens the students up to receive scholarships for college they otherwise wouldn’t be eligible for; a few South Lake students have earned partial or full scholarships to Kettering University through the program.

“It prepares them with the skills employers are looking for,” Thero said, explaining that AT&T, itself, needs people who can manage its networks. Working on the robotics team begins to teach the students some of those skills, he said.

The FIRST Robotics season began in January with the revealing of the year’s game and instructions on how to play it. Then teams had six weeks to build their robot before a six-week competition season began at the district level. From there, teams qualified for state and national championships.

“We are done for the season,” Thompson said. Although South Lake’s team qualified for the quarterfinals, the robot had been damaged beyond repair.

Students said that working on the team has opened their eyes to careers they might not have considered for the future, like biomedical engineering.

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