FIRST things first

Members of the Robogators take part in a regular practice. (Photo by 8-18 Media)

Robots are high-tech machines, which are programmable. You can build and design them to fit your needs. Kids, on the other hand, are not programmable machines, yet when kids come together to build a robot it can create some highly desirable results; such as learning to work as a team.

Laura Farwell is the coach of the local FIRST Robotics team called the Robogators. They meet at North Star Academy in Marquette. Farwell, who has coached the middle school Robogators for four years now, said she started coaching a robotics team because she wanted to help create that unique opportunity for students to learn teamwork, a skill not easily learned in a traditional classroom. The members work together to build and design a robot that will compete in an alliance competition with specific goals and objectives set for all FIRST teams nationally.

“It’s active learning versus passive learning, which is like sitting in a classroom at a desk listening to teacher. Active learning means, here is what they are doing: They are working on a robot or they are building a 3D printer. They are programming,” Farwell said. “We have a very high ratio of mentors and coaches to students so that they can learn by doing as well as in other ways. It’s active learning. It’s teamwork. There are a lot of presentation and communication skills that get developed and that is what you really need when you go into college and the workforce. You need those skills; not necessarily just the passive learning like sitting in a classroom.”

Farwell explained how widespread the FIRST Robotics program is.

“Well, it’s part of a global program called FIRST, which is an acronym, ‘For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.’ If you are interested in their website it is There are four different programs within their menu for K through 12. Everywhere else but Michigan, First Tech Challenge is for grades seven through 12, but in Michigan we are the pilot state for having First Tech Challenge be for middle school only, and that’s middle school as defined by the district. So in Marquette, where Bothwell is sixth through eighth and North Star is seventh and eighth grade for middle school, we are a little flexible so a sixth-grader can do the First Tech Challenge, but if it’s a better fit, do the FIRST Lego League. Here with the North Star team we take North Star students, homeschoolers and then any overflow from Bothwell,” Farwell said.

Farwell said she believes robotics can be for everybody, although it will challenge all students.

“FIRST has been called the hardest fun that you have ever had. It is a lot of fun. They are having a blast. They want to do all this. I think there is much more demand from students than there are teams available right now. I think as long as students keep wanting it, it will keep growing. As long as we can get volunteers,” she said.

Like most nonprofits, the Robogators need volunteers to keep their program running smoothly. Farwell said volunteering with a robotics team doesn’t require much besides the willingness to help out.

“It’s been a little difficult getting adult volunteers at times because it is a commitment, but it doesn’t need to be. There are ways people can help that are not real time intensive,” Farwell said. “I think some people get scared away because of the technology and they say ‘Oh I don’t have a technology background,’ but you don’t really need a technology background. You just need to want to be involved.”

One thing is for sure—kids want to be involved.

Torrey Cookman, an eighth-grader at North Star Academy who has been on the Robogators for three years, explained his favorite part of being an active team member.

“Probably when we get to the competitions and it’s a good feeling when you are doing well. It’s fun,” Cookman said.

Cookman also finds some aspects of the group challenging.

“Getting screws in places where they need to be; designing what we are going to make and making it,” Cookman said. “It’s hard to design it because you need to know what you are going to do and sometimes it doesn’t work.”

What makes it challenging is also what makes it so advantageous for students. Outside-of-the-box thinking will give them an edge later in life. Looking to his future, Cookman knows being on this team will give him an advantage.

“FIRST, the organization that we are part of gives scholarships, or if you write on your resume that you are part of FIRST they are more likely to hire you than someone with the exact same resume but doesn’t have FIRST,” Cookman said.

Sam Kinney, a seventh-grader at North Star Academy is new to the group, due to the fact that this is his first year on the team, but he too knows this program will benefit his future.

“It might help me because I want to be an engineer when I get older so I think I will have experience because of what we are working on,” Kinney said.

Over the past summer, Farwell and the Robogators built a 3D printer so that they can design and print some of their own robot parts for the upcoming competition season, which is right around the corner. Come September the Robogators will know what their new competition objectives are when they are announced nationally for all FIRST teams.

“The second Saturday in September is the national kick off day and so you get that and then you have until your first tournament to figure out what your strategy is: which determines your robot design, which determines how you build. You can’t do everything in the robot game so you have to have a strategy. We’re going to try and do this, this, and this and if we can figure those things out then we can try and do that, that, that. So there’s a real time fuse on this. We had a much different robot for state finals than we did for our qualifying tournament down in Petoskey. So, we have been tinkering on the robot since state finals, which was late December,” Farwell said.

While the Robogators work on building a robot for competition they are also building skills for a successful future.

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