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Dream Factory

Inside the hive with the Killer Bees robotics team

February 14, 2014

Killer Bees' Ellen Green

It’s a hot, sunny day in early June. School’s let out for the year, and carefree summer months lie ahead. It’s celebration time for most students, but not for Ellen Green, a junior-to-be at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Pontiac, Mich. The 16-year-old Green and her dedicated “Killer Bees” teammates are spending their first weekend of summer vacation in a crowded tent on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., competing in an exhibition event with 23 other FIRST Robotics teams, guiding robots on a court as they shoot baskets through a hoop — and, most importantly, learning the techniques and skills that will help turn them into the next generation of engineers.

“My summer will revolve around robotics,” says Ellen, an aspiring double major in civil engineering and mechanical engineering. “In FIRST Robotics, you learn to get along with others, how to collaborate and how to brainstorm. Those are skills you need in the professional world, something many kids don’t get.”

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen (famous for inventing the Segway human transporter) to inspire students to take leadership roles in science and technology fields. Each year, FIRST Robotics teams are presented with a different challenge by the FIRST brain trust, and given six weeks to create a robot that can negotiate the contest. Game concepts involve a head-to-head sport to score points. The 2012 game challenged teams to build a robot capable of scoring as many basketballs in a hoop as possible during a two-minutes and 15-second match.

The FIRST Robotics organization began with less than 100 teams, and has expanded to number nearly 2,500 squads worldwide. The “Killer Bees” are one of the best, ranked 16th in the world. The team captured the FIRST Robotics Michigan state championship in 2011, and placed first in the Galileo Division at the 2012 FIRST World Championship.

Coaching Tomorrow’s Engineers
As a mentoring program, FIRST Robotics puts heavy emphasis on direction and guidance from current professionals and engineers. Six employees from FCA US serve as team mentors.

“At the core of FIRST Robotics is the partnership between professionals and students,” says Jim Zondag, Electrical Integration Team Leader at FCA US and mentor and team leader of the “Killer Bees” for fifteen years. “We work hand-in-hand. It starts in the ninth grade, when students watch us build the robots, and by the time they’re seniors, many are competent enough to assume leadership positions.

“It’s essentially a varsity sport of invention. They practice like you would for any sport, building machines and inventing things. We teach CAD, software development and metal fabrication. We teach everything that goes into the invention process of designing a machine and optimizing it to be better than your competition. It’s analogous to what we do in the auto industry. It’s a microcosm of that, and we turn it into a competitive sport.”

Jessica Green, Ellen’s twin sister, is also a member of the “Killer Bees,” and the bright 16-year-old has developed a strong sense of confidence thanks to her participation. “Working side-by-side with mentors and professionals, you gain self-confidence that you can be a professional and move on to the next level,” says Jessica.

The “Killer Bees” enjoy an amazing perk for aspiring engineers — team members build their robots at the FCA US Headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., providing invaluable exposure to working engineers.

Students drill a hole in a metal pipe.

Through FIRST Robotics, thousands of students learn the skills needed to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“The coolest part is working at the Tech Center,” observes Andrew Palardy, a “Killer Bee” and graduating senior who builds the code that directs the robots. “We see a lot of labs, a lot of cool stuff.”

“It’s a really great opportunity,” raves Demi Outman, a pixie-sized incoming senior at Notre Dame Prep who builds the team’s robots, fashioning together sheet metal. “We work inside FCA US and meet men¬tors that work there, and they show us their jobs.” Adds Jessica Green, “It’s like a young engineer’s dream. We work with mentors from different departments, like electrical engineers and mechanical engineers.”

A Varsity Letter in Robotics
Many schools regard FIRST Robotics as a varsity sport, including Notre Dame Prep. When the “Killer Bees” captured the 2011 state championship, the accomplishment was treated with the same regard as a title in football or basketball.

“At our school, when athletic teams win a championship, they get a day off school. When we won the championship we received the same level of respect and got a day off,” recalls Jessica Green. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when we win the world championship, but we have high expectations.”

FIRST Robotics competition features the intensity inherent in head-to-head sports, but the heated rivalries are tempered by a spirit of cooperation. At the Oakland University exhibition, opposing teams pitched in to help one another repair malfunctioning robots. The squads also form three-team alliances at each competition, with the combined scores the difference between victory and defeat. Teamwork is stressed, teaching students how to work together with many different individuals and groups — a crucial skill in the working world.

“There’s a lot of what we call ‘coopertition,’” says Ellen Green. “It’s cooperation and competition. I’ve made a lot of friends on opposing teams, and my boyfriend is actually on another team (the EngiNeerds).”

Adds Outman, “It’s just like a sport, you have statistics and you compete against each other, yet there is that aspect of working together which in other sports you don’t see as much.”

FIRST competition boasts other athletic accoutrements. The “Killer Bees” jerseys’ are lined with sponsor logos, and the kids are cheered on by a “Killer Bee” mascot, as well as friends and family who line the sides of the court as robots fire baskets and gather balls, with FIRST Robotics teams directing the machines with joysticks and laptops from behind a Plexiglas® wall.

“We’re a very high spirit team,” says Ellen Green. “We’re known for being the biggest and the loudest. We’re doing real-world work here, but the fact that we are engaged, interested and having fun doing it is huge.”
Foundation for the Future

Also huge is the support the “Killer Bees” receive from The FCA Foundation. The team is one of 22 to receive grants of monetary support from The FCA Foundation, which has awarded more than $1.7 million to FIRST Robotics programs.

“The more monetary support our team can get, the more time our men¬tors can spend with the kids,” explains Julia Green, mother of twins Ellen and Jessica. “We appreciate all the help that The FCA Foundation has given.”

“It’s really helpful,” agrees Outman, of The FCA Foundation support. “If we didn’t have sponsors it would be really difficult for the teams and students. There definitely wouldn’t be as many kids inspired to be in engineering.” Adds Joe Soisson, a senior at Notre Dame Prep and the “Killer Bees” scout, who scopes out the competition and potential teams to recruit for alliances, “Without The FCA Foundation, we would probably not have a team.”

“The FCA Foundation is proud to play a role in encouraging students to explore the worlds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” says Jody Trapasso, Senior Vice President – External Affairs, FCA US LLC and President of The FCA Foundation. “Beyond exposing students to these important subjects, the FIRST Robotics Competition is exemplary at fostering the development of valuable life-skills such as leadership, team-building and problem-solving.”

That support enables many FIRST Robotics participants to fulfill their dreams of engineering careers — with some “Killer Bees” in competition at the Oakland Hills exhibition already punching the clock in new college co-op programs.

“We have four students this summer working at FCA US who are university students that participated in FIRST Robotics,” says Zondag. “We also recently founded a co-op program in conjunction with Kettering University in Flint, Mich.”

Palardy, the “Killer Bees” robot code builder, is one of the students taking part in the new co-op program. “The best part of FIRST is getting the co-op,” says Palardy. “I’ll be working at FCA US in powertrain controls on co-op while attending Kettering. It’s an amazing opportunity.”

For FIRST Robotics participants like Ellen Green, with two years of high school remaining, stories such as Palardy’s are pure inspiration.

“I’m definitely going to look for a co-op program,” says Ellen. “It encourages kids. I’ve been able to build fantastic relationships with my mentors. I look up to a lot of people, but the people I look up to most are those working professionals. I want to make my own path in the world, with guidance from my mentors. I don’t want to grow up and be a millionaire. I want to grow up and be Ellen Green — and be really good at it.”

By Darren Jacobs – Mopar Nation, Fall 2012

For more information about The FCA Foundation, see the Community Support Overview on www.fcanorthamerica.com.