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Detroit Schools Build Teams, Experiences With Robotics

Teachers and students at a Catholic high school and a pre-K through 8th public school are learning to collaborate through FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit robotics program.

Students, Robotics, Program
(TNS) — The physical distance separating Detroit Cristo Rey High School and Neinas Dual Language Learning Academy in Southwest Detroit is less than a half mile. But when it comes to working together, they might as well be right next door.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon in November, members of the Cristo Rey robotics team made a now-familiar brisk stroll over to Neinas after school to help the middle school robotics team at Neinas prepare for an upcoming competition.

The Cristo Rey and Neinas robotics teams participate in competitions sponsored by FIRST in Michigan, a nonprofit organization that supports the mission and vision of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRST has been called a "global robotics community, which prepares youth for the future." And in the case of Cristo Rey, a co-ed Catholic high school, and Neinas, a "neighborhood-centered" Detroit Public Schools Community District Pre-K through 8th grade school, the blend of the robotics community with the community of Southwest Detroit has whetted the appetites of hungry young minds at both schools.

"What I like most about our kiddos being with the kiddos from Cristo Rey is that collaboration piece, which is so important in life," said Andrea Whan, an English Language Arts teacher and coach of the second-year robotics team at Neinas. "It (the relationship between the schools) started when we went to their summer (robotics) camp and saw all of the possibilities, and the relationship blossomed from there.

"The partnership has been really, really positive, especially for us, because we get to learn and grow, and ask questions."

Extending an "olive branch," as Whan called it, to the Neinas program was a natural action for Ann McGowan, a science teacher and the robotics coach at Cristo Rey. McGowan's squad, known in the competition world as the Kinematic Wolves FRC 5577 from Detroit Cristo Rey High School, was formed in the fall of 2014 to show how math and science connect to students in hands-on, real-life ways by having the students use the fundamentals of "mechanical engineering, electrical design, programming, business, finance and marketing in an environment where they can learn." Banners displaying awards won by the team, along with robots weighing up to 145 pounds of increasing complexity made by the team members and stored at Cristo Rey demonstrate that the program has achieved its educational mission within the high school. But McGowan proudly says the robotics program's contributions have extended beyond the school grounds located at the corner of W. Vernor and Junction on the Most Holy Redeemer campus, in the West Vernor-Junction Historic District.

"We have a term that we use called 'coopertition,'" a blending of the words cooperation and competition, said McGowan, who also is a co-founder of the Motor City Alliance, which provides resources and assistance to robotics teams in the Greater Detroit area, including teams from the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

"At workshops and competitions, I see my own students flowing between the different teams and talking to all of these different kids," she said. "And then they are able to approach another coach — approach an adult — and my students are saying 'Where can I help? Where are you stuck?'

"These are high school kids, they're not adults yet. But they are professionals in that situation and are able to give guidance to the coaches. And the coaches value that experience. And through the years we have seen more and more teams engaging in that type of experience. ... The teams are still going to compete against each other, but they're also helping each other. And that's one of those other joys — one of those secret kinds of things — that comes through FIRST Robotics."

To further explain and showcase the fruits of "coopertition," as the Tuesday afternoon is about to change to evening, McGowan takes off her heels and puts on her walking shoes in preparation for a quick trip to Neinas. Upon her arrival, she sees familiar faces in a classroom representing both schools, including Kandice Jones, a senior at Cristo Rey, who finds joy in helping the Neinas robotics team while honing her leadership skills.

"What I enjoy most about robotics is being able to voice my opinion with my coaches and to actively participate in a group that's not based on the adults doing all of the work," Jones, who is considering a career in either contract law or neuroscience, said. "Being able to work with this middle school team allows me to see where I can help. Because I'm with the business team (within the Cristo Rey robotics squad) I'm not really doing much robot-wise, but I can help these middle schoolers organize themselves and help them do other things to build their program."

Other Cristo Rey seniors that chose to spend their after-school time in a Neinas classroom that day were Yaritza Ramirez and Jairo Gonzalez.

"What I enjoy most about robotics is the experience, because when I was younger I always loved creating and building things, but I never had a reason to do so," Ramirez, who plans to study engineering in college, said. "As I grew up I had this desire, but had nowhere to use it until I came into Detroit Cristo Rey and found out about robotics, and from there I found that engineering is something I can try — a career. And it started making me feel that I had meaning in my life, and it helped me forge a path and think that this is something I want to do in the future."

For Gonzalez, who joined McGowan's team as a senior, robotics has been all about fun and good people.

"The thing that brought me to robotics is trying to live out my senior life — trying to get a new experience — because most of my high school years I spent studying," Gonzalez, who is focused on a career in mechanical engineering in some form, said. "I also enjoy robotics because I can spend time with my friends."

Also in the Neinas classroom with Gonzalez and his friends were two students that played a special role in bringing the Cristo Rey and Neinas teams together, Anthony Sanchez and Daniel Roblero. As Whan, their Neinas coach tells it: "Anthony and Daniel went to the (Cristo Rey) summer camp and they got to see the robot that was there and it was working and a little light lit up in their eyes and in their hearts, and they brought that back to Neinas and started building."

And both students are still building on their robotic experiences.

"What I most enjoy about robotics is getting a chance to meet new people; working with other people; and having fun," Sanchez said. "My main goal is to have fun and learn new stuff. I've done robotics in the past, but this is a little different because I'm getting more hands-on experience with building, programming and testing new stuff that I have never experienced. But still my main goal is just to have fun."

Roblero said: "I joined robotics this year because it's pretty fun. We get to build robots and then compete versus other people and other schools in Detroit, and out of Detroit ... It's pretty impressive how a robot moves and I never thought I would be able to do this. But now I'm doing a little bit of coding and helping my team out."

As all of the students assembled in the classroom — which also included Cristo Rey freshmen Jesus Moyotl and Tania Barba, along with Neinas seventh graders Anthony Florentin and Francisco Varvo — they shared what they most enjoyed about robotics. The sounds of laughter flowed from McGowan as she worked the room engaging the students and Whan, bringing a sense of ease to all inside. McGowan often oozes that same levity and warmth to help focus her day on robotics. However, there was a moment, just before the walk over to Neinas, when she was temporarily choked up. As she explains, what she most wants the community to know about all Detroit students that participate in robotics, is a statement she took the time to write out and then shared with her robotics team members before sharing with an outsider.

" Detroit is seen by many as a place with no future — a war zone. Yet for me, through the eyes of these students, I see future leaders and innovators," McGowan, who is affectionately called the "robotics mom" by her team members, explained. "I see students realize they can be an engineer or a business professional. They possess the skills, and when given the opportunity, they shine.

"We have a saying on our team: We don't see it as impossible. We say it's possible. It's possible to change the future. It's possible to discover who we are. And through FIRST Robotics, we showcase this every time we enter the room."


Saturday, Dec. 4: The Motor City Alliance will host the Detroit qualifier for the FIRST in Michigan FIRST Tech Challenge Middle School Robotics State Championships. Opening ceremonies begin at 10:30 a.m. and matches start at 11 a.m. The event takes place at Southeastern High School, 3030 Fairview, Detroit. Detroit middle school teams have had three months to design and manufacture a robot for this year's challenge. Each team will compete in a series of matches and also will be judged on their engineering approach and community engagement. Seven teams will advance to the championship event taking place December 17-18 in Battle Creek.

For more information on the Motor City Alliance, please visit

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