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University’s FIRST Center becomes community STEM hub

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Bob Nichols

Director, FIRST Robotics Community Center at Kettering University

I first introduced FIRST robotics to Kettering University, my alma mater, in 1997. Back then, an old gymnasium on campus was being used for storage and I was able to place a piece of carpet down in the corner for community teams to practice on.  My colleague, Dr. Henry Kowalski, recognized the space as an opportunity for FIRST community teams supported and/or sponsored by Kettering. In 2014, the FIRST Robotics Community Center opened its doors on our Flint, Michigan, campus.

Home to eight FIRST Robotics Competition teams, the Center includes a full-sized practice field, a machine shop, and a design and programming lab. Beyond that, our Center offers so much more than a warm space for teams to meet and store their equipment during Michigan winters. The FIRST Robotics Community Center is a year-round STEM education hub meeting several needs in the Flint community. Here’s how:

We are a collaboration space
The eight high-school FIRST Robotics Competition teams based at the FIRST Robotics Community Center consistently collaborate with each other on strategy, design, build, and resources. This collaborative atmosphere exists even though they are creating different robots and will be competing against each other. We also house practice fields for FIRST programs and host end-of-year and off-season competitions for FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST LEGO League. I see centers similar to ours as the future of FIRST, particularly for high schools that don’t have the resources, space, equipment, or mentors to build robots and/or host FIRST teams and events.

We are a knowledge hub
One of the biggest challenges for FIRST teams is finding mentors. Finding teachers/mentors within the schools are critical for the long-term sustainability of the programs. The FIRST Center has partnered with Flint Community Schools and the Crim Fitness Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Flint that leads after-school programming at each school, to train teachers, mentors, and students. For teachers who are new to robotics and may be somewhat intimidated, the training really helps excite and motivate them, and often I see a light go on!  They are then anxious to take it back to the classroom.  We are now offering teacher training to other school districts.

We host many FIRST summer camps (27 last summer) for elementary, middle, and high school students and a preseason fall workshop series that is open to any FIRST Robotics Competition teams (mentors and students) in Michigan to attend for programming, electrical, mechanical, and machine shop training – at no charge. Programming workshops include C++, Java, LabVIEW, and more.  These workshops really help teams prepare for the next FIRST season.

We recently started a series called “Engineering Inspiration Talks.” We invite technology leaders to talk to students and share their cool technology. We want to inspire and motivate students to see there are so many different choices for career paths.

We are a STEM outreach center
Reaching out into the community is part of our mission at Kettering. Our goal was to get involved in the community and get more kids interested in STEM careers, and FIRST is a key way we accomplish that.

Last summer, Ford Motor Company sponsored a two-week summer camp at the Center for Flint High School students, in which students received free SAT Prep training, learned to program an autonomous Ford Mustang, and designed and built a robot to compete at the end of the camp. Two students from the summer camp are now on the Flint F.I.R.E. FIRST Robotics Competition team, including a programmer who I hope will be a future Kettering student. He was the key to getting the robot built.

Through a grant, we’re working with Flint Community Schools to pilot a FIRST LEGO League camp at an elementary school and to support five FIRST LEGO League teams started this year. We hope to add 12 or 13 more teams by the end of this year. We’ve received significant grant program and foundation support. It is vital that we serve our community.

We are a university
This year, approximately 30 percent of Kettering’s incoming freshmen are FIRST alumni. In fact, in partnership with FIRST, Kettering University awards up to 50 scholarships to FIRST alumni each year, with a five-year value of up to $25,000. Kettering is proud to have awarded over $4 million dollars in FIRST Scholarships since 1999.

Some of our undergraduate students eagerly help us manage the FIRST Center through college work-study, and many Kettering students and FIRST alumni mentor or coach FIRST teams. It creates a strong bond between our Kettering students and high school students from Flint and the surrounding communities.

Our Center’s location is critical to its success. We’re on the campus of a university. FIRST teams and Flint students gain access to our students, faculty, and alumni – and become more comfortable in the university environment. Kettering students get to take advantage of their engineering skills and work within their community. That’s a win-win-win for FIRST, for the greater Flint community, and for Kettering.

Learn how FIRST is closing the STEM gap in Michigan.


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