Full Steam Ahead for FIRST Robotics

When the FIRST Robotics Competition advanced in year two from an elementary first year challenge of stacking recyclable totes to the Medieval challenge, essentially storming the castle parapets, the excitement level ratcheted up considerably. This year, however, students right here in Michigan's Great Southwest are ready to go full steam ahead against students nationwide in the multi-faceted new FIRST Steamworks competition revealed worldwide this morning.

Hundreds of students from dozens of teams gathered at the Lake Michigan College Mendel Center's Grand Upton Hall eager to see what game they'll be working on over the next six weeks in preparation for the competition to get underway.

Dean Kamen's national team rolled out the FIRST Steamworks 2017 game in a live broadcast revelation closely watched by the students who first heard from a panel of guests who delivered some sage advice and then answered questions fired at them by the FIRST Robotics competitors awaiting the annual game.

After being welcomed by LMC President Dr. Bob Harrison and hearing from several program alums, four new rookie teams were introduced including:

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  • Decatur Robotics
  • Lawton High School
  • Cardinal.exe
  • Niles Career Tech Robotics

The Chairman's Award, the most prestigious award possible at the local level, was delivered to Team 2959 the CW Tech Robotarians from Lake Superior State, and then Co-Chair Tim Dunaj introduced the new Sunset Coast Robotics Alliance. He also invited everyone to tune in for Robotics Roundtable Season II on WSJM 94.9FM underwritten by the Bradford Insurance Agency at Kettering University.

The guest panel addressing the robotics students included:

  • Congressman Fred Upton
  • Jeff Noel of Whirlpool Corporation
  • Corey Carolla of Vickers Engineering
  • Amber Layman of Kinexus
  • Michael Mason of LECO Corporation
  • Dr. Benjamin Stockton, Director of Robotics for Lakeland Health

Asked by a student what it means that the manufacturing sector is growing considerably in SW Michigan, Carolla pointed to the automation his team at Vickers is employing and how it has led to 27 new jobs in the last month alone at his shop with projections for the need for an additional 50 new jobs in the coming year. He cited the sharp rebound in manufacturing as being why so many skilled jobs are being called for, and why there are so many opportunities to walk into a facility and actively participate in high-skilled jobs.

Amber Layman from Kinexus backed Carolla up, saying that manufacturing jobs are expected to increase by 20-percent over the next five years locally, as compared to a projected 7-percent rise on the national front.

Dr. Stockton told students that their vision can be limitless, suggesting there will be amazing strides in the technology of health care over the next 50 years as the world continues to change.

Whirlpool's Jeff Noel told the students, "The future of our company is sitting right here in this room today." He told the technologically advanced kids on hand that in addition to Whirlpool's own innovators and engineers, they have more than 4,000 vendors in their supply chain who all need skilled workers to continue to build the connected world we live in and continue to advance toward as well as those who handle the logistics of preparing, building, marketing, selling, storing and shipping things like the four million washing machines they make every day in one plant in Ohio.

Fred Upton echoed the others by talking about the myriad Michigan businesses that are continuing to grow and expand, even as Layman reminded the students that there are companies who have to turn away business opportunities every day until they can hire the skilled workforce they need in order to take on those additional opportunities.

LECO Corporation's Mike Mason told the young listeners that "You can't have manufacturing without engineering, as the professions are tied together." He called the pace of innovation today "mind-boggling," adding, "The challenge is to keep pace with the rate of change and to keep up with the competition. The life cycle of products requires a continuous look at the future, as the increasingly short time frame from the lab to the factory floor requires a remarkable amount of teamwork and collaboration."

Carolla strongly encouraged everyone in the room to tirelessly embrace lifelong learning.

Asked about what should be on students' resumes, advice ranged from "demonstrable, tangible accomplishments" and "the ability to apply critical thinking in a productive manner" to "exhibit strong time management and a solid work ethic." Noel encouraged showing a well-rounded background and "fire in the belly."

After a break the students watched the live telecast of the Steamworks game reveal video, which you can watch below. It pits two adventure clubs from an era in which technology relied on steam power to prepare their airships for the ultimate long distance race.

In the game, robots will collect fuel represented by green balls that they load into their boilers to elevate steam pressure. Robots also retrieve and deliver gears to pilots on their airships who install them on the appropriate rotor. Additionally, the clubs will want their robots to climb aboard the airship so they can assist pilots in the race.

Each adventure club scores points by reaching their baseline, delivering gears to the airship and scoring the fuel into the boilers. Watch the video for full details.

After the reveal, teams acquired their Parts Kits, surveyed a demonstration field of the game and began strategizing how best to build their robots and prepare for the field of play.

The first regional competition will take place in St. Joseph on March 10th and 11th according to field coordinators, and the students have the next six weeks to get ready and begin their practice sessions. As has become the norm, the excitement level was very high today with students from all across the region pumped and ready to take flight in the new FIRST Steamworks competition.

Here's the link for the game description video:


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