Robotics students are next tech workforce

When Koops Automation Systems is looking for a new hire with the skills they need, project engineer Dean Shafer’s thoughts frequently turn to the alumni of F.I.R.S.T. Robotics programs.

Shafer is a mentor with the Holland Christian Schools F.I.R.S.T. Robotics team, and he knows the students are learning the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

World Championships

Last month, Holland Christian’s Team 107 and Zeeland High School’s Team 85 competed at the F.I.R.S.T. Robotics World Championship in Houston. They met teams from Turkey, Japan, Israel, Mexico, Canada, and the Netherlands. Zeeland made it as far as the quarter finals and Holland Christian to the semi-finals before they were eliminated.

Mentors from area tech industries are critical to robotics teams' success.
Each year, the challenge is different. This year, students designed, built, and programmed robots (which weighed about 150 pounds when complete) that could deliver cargo (oversized tennis balls) to their hub to secure points for their team while preventing the other team’s robot from scoring.

Each team is made up of students and their mentors — usually professionals in the tech field. Every year, students learn how to work together, how to work out bugs, how to make revisions.

Mentors are a critical part of every F.I.R.S.T. Robotics team, says Laura Westrate, a mentor on Team 85 at Zeeland High School, which goes by B.O.B. (Built on Brains).

“Not only is it community service on their end,” she says, “but selfishly, they are also helping to train the next workforce.”

Westrate is one F.I.R.S.T. alumna of many who have gone into scientific fields and come back to help the teams that helped them.

The Zeeland High School robotics team
First-hand experience

Now a chemistry and biochemistry professor at Calvin University, Westrate says running her own lab often requires innovative and creative solutions — a skill robotics helped instill in her.

“It was my first time having first-hand experience with what it means to tackle really hard questions and what it means to work as a team,” she says.

Students are given the chance to make mistakes — and learn from those mistakes, she says.

Cultivating skills, connections

Eleven Koops employees volunteer their time with area high school and middle school robotics teams. The company, itself, has a budget to support both the teams its employees mentor and to help new robotics teams get started.

“The values and what they do at FIRST align with what we do at work,” Shafer says, citing integrity and excellence and adding, “these kids are all about teamwork.”

Students in robotics programs learn problem solving, research and development, and trial and error, among other skills, Shafer says.

“We see the value of creating the connection with these schools and our employees,” Shafer says. “We’ve seen these students come back to us (as employees). They fit the needs we have. My personal goal is to help these students find their value in the workforce. It might not be engineering, it might be leadership skills. There’s a lot of different roles they can fill. They’ll find their niche.”

Aside from the technical skills such as computer aided drafting, programming, and machining that FIRST robotics has taught him, it has also helped James Oosterhouse, 17 and a junior at Holland Christian High School, to learn the softer skills of working as a member of a team and “gracious professionalism.”

Robotics students design, build, and program their robots before competing against other schools.
Gracious professionalism and cooperatition

Gracious professionalism is one of the core values of FIRST.

“Our team has instilled that in the lives of everyone involved,” Oosterhouse says. “Gracious professionalism means working together, in competition and in cooperation, for the benefit of the community as a whole.”

Shafer uses another favored term: Cooperatition.

“It’s more than robots. It’s more than competition. It’s cooperatition,” he says to describe cooperating with others while still competing. “It’s different than any sport there is.”

It’s a trait embodied by the team’s mentors: Shafer who works for Koops and Nicki Bonczyk, who works for the competition — JR Automation.

They might be competitors at work, but they cooperate to help the students of Holland Christian High School Team 107.

“We are trying to inspire the next generation of engineers,” Bonczyk says.

West Michigan was an early adopter of F.I.R.S.T., which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

Bonczyk, herself, a F.I.R.S.T. alumna, says the program is the reason she became an engineer.

Oosterhouse has participated in robotics since middle school. He is now one of the Holland Christian team leaders and drives the robot at competitions, programs the robot, and helped to write some of the information for awards.
“Before robotics I really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life,” Oosterhouse says. “However, when I joined the team, I found a passion that has been growing ever since.”

He plans to pursue a career in computer science. 
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