Robotics Collaboration and Innovation Center continues to grow

‘Don’t let the word ‘robotics’ scare you’

By: Andy Kozlowski | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published July 28, 2021


STERLING HEIGHTS — For local students, designing robots and competing in games is a fun way to learn STEM concepts — science, technology, engineering and math — and it can also lead to career opportunities, since robotics is a diverse field with many real-life applications.

Helping them to succeed is the Macomb County Robotics Collaboration and Innovation Center, or RCIC, located in the Velocity Center at 6633 18 Mile Road in Sterling Heights. The RCIC is a nonprofit created in partnership between Macomb County, Macomb Community College, the city of Sterling Heights and the Macomb Intermediate School District. And it’s just getting started.

The RCIC’s goal is to support robotics education and related efforts in southeast Michigan by partnering with businesses, nonprofits, startups and schools to offer tools, programs and other assistance to robotics teams in the area.

Recently, the group made its first hire: Marjie Jenkins, who will serve as the RCIC coordinator. She has 22 years of experience with robotics competition through FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a worldwide organization. She began as a student on a FIRST robotics team in Pontiac, and she currently mentors a robotics group in West Bloomfield.

The RCIC had already been connecting with high schools prior to her arrival this year, but she increased the scope, reaching out to elementary and middle schools, as well. Part of the program’s work is seeing what the different robotics teams need and helping connect them to resources, including other schools that can collaborate with them.

Jenkins said that currently, the RCIC has a room in a building at the Velocity Center, but they don’t yet have a presence there. The program is still in its early stages. Last fall, when the RCIC first received funding, the center began providing 3D printers and computer numerical control routers to local high schools for their robotics teams. The 3D printers and CNC routers are tabletop models that help fabricate pieces that the students design on computers.

In the future, the RCIC anticipates growing to either encompass its current building or another building at the Velocity Center. The plan is to provide a variety of on-site services to local schools, including a dedicated workshop with machines for fabricating large-scale pieces, classroom spaces for training camps, and a full-size practice field for teams to test out driving and operating the robots they build — one of the most requested features among teams.

“I’ve seen robots that are mediocre but the teams dominated because they got to practice driving and operating that robot before competing,” Jenkins said, noting that a full-size field is about 60 by 30 feet — “and that’s a resource not many teams have.”

Jenkins said that many people join robotics teams with little to no mechanical, electrical or programming knowledge. However, teams generally help newcomers learn the basics, and there are other ways to get involved, too.

“When I talk to people, I like to preface it by saying, ‘Don’t let the word ‘robotics’ scare you’ — even with adults, it can scare them into thinking they have to be a good programmer or something, but they don’t need that,” Jenkins said. “I’ve seen students go through this program who started with no interest whatsoever for anything mechanically inclined, or programming, but each team functions like a business, so there is still a financial aspect and marketing and outreach to get more people involved in your community. There’s something for everyone, and I try to convey that to parents who are sometimes happy to help but think they don’t have skills.

“Right now, I’m trying to organize a programming class here (at the RCIC) to teach the basics for those interested and a CAD class (computer-aided design), as well, so mentors or teachers who don’t have that background but want to learn can take those classes and gain that knowledge,” Jenkins said. “I know a teacher at Lincoln Middle School who’s an art teacher but took a CNC class for when they got their router (for fabricating). He wants to use the mill and lathe, so I’m working on getting him some training. You just need to have a yearning to learn — 99% of the teams will teach you, if they know, and if they don’t, maybe they can come here to get some of that.”  

John Paul Rea, the RCIC’s president, said in a statement that the program is only starting out but has already made great strides.

“Macomb County is an epicenter for advanced manufacturing and automation, and we need to continue building a workforce that can help these sectors thrive,” Rea said. “This dynamic partnership between government, education and industry helped envision a center that would connect young people to mentors and professionals, and give them a space to pursue their passions. These first big announcements with programming and our new hire show how far we’ve come in a short period of time and how much demand there is in our region for the service and amenities the center provides.”

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