International Academy of Macomb students Jeremy Abapo, left, and Magdalena Sawicki demonstrate their team’s robot during a FIRST robotics open house at the Macomb Intermediate School District Nov. 19.

International Academy of Macomb students Jeremy Abapo, left, and Magdalena Sawicki demonstrate their team’s robot during a FIRST robotics open house at the Macomb Intermediate School District Nov. 19.

Photo by Sean Work

Students host robotics discussion, open house

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published November 27, 2018

 Members of the International Academy of Macomb watch as their robot launches a box for another robot to catch.

Members of the International Academy of Macomb watch as their robot launches a box for another robot to catch.

Photo by Sean Work


CLINTON TOWNSHIP — On Nov. 19 at the Macomb Intermediate School District in Clinton Township, individuals from the International Academy of Macomb’s I.AM.ROBOT FIRST Robotics team hosted an open house and a panel discussion as a way to meld youthful exuberance with future employment opportunities.

The future is enveloped by STEM-related activities, putting students at the forefront of science, technology, engineering and mathematics for the purpose of bettering the world while paving their own career paths.

The event featured 16 teams from around the county.

Gail Alpert is the president of FIRST Robotics, based in West Bloomfield. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” The nonprofit organization began in 1989, engaging children with mentor-based programs that extend beyond learning and include the fostering of capabilities that include self-confidence, communication and leadership.

Alpert praised the state Legislature for a grant back in 2013 that helped combine education and business opportunity. After being neck and neck for years with California in terms of possessing the most statewide robotics teams, Michigan’s reach grew from 345 teams in 2015 to 544 teams today. California has 329 teams today.

The progress has been extraordinary. Students in K-12 are part of the extracurricular endeavor, with Lego kits offered to those in K-3, and the formation of a pre-K program in the works. Students learn how to program via the use of icons and streaming together coding mechanisms. Knowledge has extended to areas pertaining to environmental issues, outer space, water and even foodborne illnesses — all translating into robotics-based missions.

“We believe that getting kids involved early and keeping them involved all the way up until the time that they make the decision of where they’re gonna go for a career path is vital,” Alpert said. “The earlier we get them, the more we can keep them focused on a STEM career.”

That includes high school students employing kits in a nontraditional sense, through the use of cameras, processors and coding mechanisms mixed with different languages.

“It’s nothing to them,” she said. “They don’t even understand what they’re given, but by the time they get out, it’s second nature to them. They don’t have the head trips that adults do.”

She used the example of a “diplomatic and very bright” FIRST team member who received an internship opportunity as a high school sophomore. On his first day at the internship, he was given a program to test for coding purposes. Once his superior, an engineer, returned from lunch to gauge his progress, the student responded that he created his own video game.

The statistics are worth noting. About 50 percent of all corporations that sponsor FIRST teams hire one or more students for internships, with students being two times as more likely to major in a scientific or engineering field than nonparticipants.

Magdalena Sawicki is an International Academy of Macomb senior from Warren. She is part of Team 4810 and helped propose the idea to the county to get as many teams as possible in one room to display the benefits of robotics.

Team 4810 includes students from 18 school districts, with builds occurring in five-week periods.

“We’re just a group of 55 kids, out of our class of like 500, that all just come together and build that robot,” Sawicki said.

Lexie Bahm, also an IAM senior, works as the business team lead, collecting funding, doing community outreach and networking. She said that when the team began in 2012, there were 12 students. Now, there are more than 50 students.

She intends to pursue a college major focusing on environmental sustainability business.

“Getting that first initial dive-in to want to be involved really helped,” Bahm said. “I was listening to FIRST’s messages, and core values — I right away knew that’s what I was meant for to do, was to be on a robotics team. And that’s where I kind of fell in love with it, and it’s my passion now.”

FIRST’s core values include discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun.

“I don’t think (the students) realize they’re being judged,” Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said. “They’re being judged in a way not being critical, but somebody is looking at them right now (thinking,) are they a fit for our company? Do they look like a person we could find some opportunity for them, either in our organization or somewhere else?”

He said county workforce numbers across all sectors are at historic highs, with 440,000-plus jobs, while unemployment is below the national average. He said there are still 17,000 jobs available.

“It’s a multi-faceted approach to try to figure out how to solve the future world’s problems through technology, but also utilizing kids, because let’s face it: Things are built by humans, and as they start getting older, boy, they’re the ones who are going to be doing this,” he said.

Vicky Rad, deputy director of Macomb County Planning and Economic Development, said FIRST is just part of the overall evolution of Macomb County into a “white collar” community that extends beyond the old way of learning, with students learning less from textbooks and instead doing more hands-on lessons and experimenting.

“It is this generation where they’re connected, it’s all technology driven,” Rad said. “Robots, automation — those are the high-demand, high-wage earning careers that we definitely see an opportunity for the kids. And it’s being driven by our industries, whether it’s defense, aerospace, automotive.

“There’s so many cross-sectors that touch what these kids are doing. What they need to see is, there’ll be a job at the end of the day they’ll be impacting. In fact, the job they’ll be working on is something that will be brand-new, because the technology is changing so fast and rapidly.”