Sanjith Udupa, of Novi, poses for a picture with Dean Kamen, left, the founder of FIRST, and Chris Moore, FIRST’s CEO, after being named a Dean’s List Award recipient.

Sanjith Udupa, of Novi, poses for a picture with Dean Kamen, left, the founder of FIRST, and Chris Moore, FIRST’s CEO, after being named a Dean’s List Award recipient.

Photo provided by the Novi Community School District

Novi robotics student earns international award

By: Charity Meier | Novi Note | Published July 26, 2023


NOVI — This past academic year, Sanjith Udupa became the third student from Novi High School to earn the coveted FIRST Robotics Dean’s List Award and the only Michigan student to earn the honor in 2023.

“Representing Novi and Michigan at that level is like a really big honor,” said Udupa. “It just means a lot.”

Udupa was presented with the Dean’s List Award trophy during the FIRST Robotics Competition World Championship in Texas in April. The award is given to students who have demonstrated leadership and commitment to the FIRST core values; who are effective at increasing awareness of FIRST in their schools and communities; who show interest and passion for a long-term commitment to FIRST; who show individual contributions to their teams; who have technical expertise and passion; who show entrepreneurship and creativity; and who have an ability to motivate and lead their team members. “FIRST” is an acronym derived from “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

“It would be like the Heisman award for robotics, but it’s only (high school) juniors,” said George Sipple, supervisor of communications and community engagement for the Novi Community School District.

The award announcement itself was a bit of a nail-biter for Udupa. He said it was nerve-wracking, as the winners were called in no particular order and were announced by state or country and then city before stating the person’s name. He said he was the seventh winner to be announced. He said he knew he won as soon as he heard “Novi,” as there were several candidates for the award from Michigan, but he was the only candidate from Novi.

“Not only is he a technical geek, but he is a presenter — he’s a polished individual,” said Chris Huang, a coach of the Novi High School robotics team known as Frog Force 503. “Not only is he a very smart kid, but he is very modest and polite to his mentors and his peers. At the same time, he has the grasp of the technology knowledge at the tip of his fingers, and he is not afraid to go and experiment and try it out until it works. He will spend hours until he gets it right. He doesn’t give up easily … so he definitely sets himself apart in that way.”

Udupa said he was never officially told what gave him the edge over the other candidates; however, during his interview to become a semifinalist, he said, they cited his work helping to encourage youth in Detroit to go into robotics. Udupa is one of the founders of the Motor City Alliance, which has now started over 75 elementary and middle school robotics teams in Detroit.

Motor City Alliance began five years ago, when Udupa was in sixth grade. The organization partners with Detroit Public Schools Community District, universities and other local community organizations to help fund and mentor the teams. Since it was founded in 2018, Novi students have provided mentorship and technical advice, as well as helped to orchestrate robotics tournaments in the DPSCD.

“Sanjith’s work on the team was crucial there,” Huang said. “He would go twice a week and recruit kids to be part of FIRST. So that was a huge undertaking, and then he would get on workshops (online) to rural cities in China where FIRST was first introduced. … We try to reach out wide and deep, and Sanjith has played a key role in that.”

“There’s a lot more to gain from (robotics) than what you see at the surface level,” Udupa said. “Obviously, anyone that’s doing robotics is going to learn a lot about STEM and, like, science, but the advantage is more than that — you are also gaining communication skills, working with people on a team. It’s effectively like doing a sport, but there’s different disciplines. You don’t just have to be good at catching a ball or something. You can be good at coding. You can be good at building things. You can be good at marketing. There’s so many different options for someone on a robotics team that, like, anyone could do it. You don’t have to specifically be good at one thing.”

Udupa’s job on the Frog Force 503 robotics team is to write the robot’s code. Essentially, everything the robot is able to do is found in its code. Udupa said robotics is an extension of what he learns in school. He said that he has learned something in his physics class and then implemented it in a robot’s code a couple of days later.

“It makes what we’re doing in school make a lot more sense, because I can see the physical applications of it,” Udupa said.

Huang said that the robotics program gives students an advantage over those who are not in the program. He said students are exposed to coding at a younger age through the program and find themselves at a higher level than other students who had not participated in a robotics program.

Along with a trophy and a T-shirt, Udupa and the other nine Dean’s List awardees were given a trip to the FIRST Robotics Headquarters in New Hampshire. During the trip, students will be given the opportunity to connect with representatives from several companies that partner with FIRST Robotics and tour the home of Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST Robotics, and his company, DEKA.

“His home is kind of a museum of its own with all of the technology, gadgets in his basement,” said Huang.

Udupa said the award will give him an edge when applying to colleges and universities, and it gives him the opportunity to apply for some scholarships. According to Huang, many schools, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have students who earned this distinction on their radar.

“It’s a real good thing to have, going forward,” said Udupa.

  Since the award was founded in 2010, only 14 students from Michigan have been given this designation, three of whom are from Novi High School. The other Novi winners were Arseniy Ilinich in 2021 and Mitchel Huang in 2016. Six other students from NHS were finalists for the award. Two of the six finalists were the brothers of Udupa and Huang — Joshua Huang in 2020 and Ankith Udupa in 2019. Other finalists include Kirsten Anderson in 2018, Bryce Paputa in 2013, and two finalists in 2010, Tim Vello and Tom Pawlicki. Chris Huang is the father of Joshua and Mitchel.

Just being a finalist is prestigious. There are 476 teams in Michigan, and this year, 13 students were selected to represent the state in the Dean’s List Award finals.

“It definitely makes us proud that we have so many that reach that level,” Chris Huang said.

Mitchel Huang, Novi High School’s first Dean’s List winner, went on to the University of Michigan for a degree in mechanical and computer engineering and now works at SpaceX.

Chris Huang coached all three of the Dean’s List winners and most of the finalists. He said he is just amazed to watch kids rise to the top of the field from their freshman years. He said he volunteers to coach the team to make these kinds of opportunities available to the students and to be able to support them through their journeys.

“It just amazes me to see the students that just love this program that they get so addicted to it that they automatically rise to the top. I, as a coach, don’t have to do much with some of these kids. The program is such that you make it available to them and give them an opportunity and they automatically grasp and rise to the top,” he said. “I wish when I was growing up I had a program like this.”

As a reward for having a Dean’s List winner on the team, Frog Force 503 was given a $1,000 grant from FIRST. The team practices year-round to fully engage students in the field.