Building robots (and engineers) through robotics

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Andres Benavides and Amanda Said knew volunteering with an elementary school in Southwest Detroit would provide a bit of inspiration.

What they didn’t quite anticipate, is that through their work helping the Harms Elementary robotics program, they would be the ones impacted the most.

“Getting to spend part of my day with fun, energetic kids and watching them accomplish things and how excited they get, it’s inspiring,” Benavides said. “You form a special bond with the kids, and it is an amazing experience.”

“It is super rewarding,” Said said. “You see the kids start with an idea and then the progress through the season until they’ve built a robot. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Said, a special projects manager at DTE Energy, and Benavides, a student co-op in DTE’s compliance office, are volunteers for the Harms Elementary School FIRST LEGO League team, which just wrapped up its season.

The FIRST LEGO League is designed for elementary school students to get involved in STEM at a young age. Teams are tasked with building and programming an autonomous robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS, and compete against other schools on a table-top playing field.

Said and Benavides volunteered to work with the team through JoAnn Chávez, vice president, legal and Chief Tax Officer at DTE.

Chávez takes her support to the next level. She individually funds the Harms team.

“Making a difference in Detroit and its Hispanic community has always been a priority of mine,” Chávez said. “I serve as an advocate for young people to help them realize all the things they’re capable of accomplishing.”

Chávez’s contributions have not gone unnoticed, especially by Kevin and Rebecca Barker, coaches of the Harms team. They said without her support, the school would not be able to field a team.

“JoAnn is an integral part of our Lego League Team,” Kevin Barker said. “She helped get our team started by supporting our school financially and helped us get a grant to further support the robotics program. She has organized the use of DTE mentors and support through the Detroit Hispanic Development Cooperation.”

For Said part of the motivation to volunteer at the school is that many of the students who attend Harms are Hispanic.

“I’m Hispanic and all the kids are Hispanic,” she said. “So knowing that they normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to get into robotics, or any kind of engineering if it wasn’t for us, it’s cool to see.

“Many times, when students don’t have access to certain classes or resources, they think that certain fields or professions aren’t for them,” she said. “If they get involved in something like FIRST early, they see that they can be successful in those fields, too.  They see that this is for everybody and not just for kids from a certain school, race, or socioeconomic class.”

Garnering interest in STEM related careers is one of the major goals of FIRST and DTE’s continued commitment for robotics in Michigan. Per the FIRST LEGO League, 80 percent of the students involved in the program have an interest in a career that revolves around science and technology.

“Students would come back and say ‘I want to be an engineer; I want to do this for the rest of my life,’” Said said.

“Students are getting excited about science and technology,” Barker said. “STEM teaches students to problem solve and be creative with their solutions. It teaches students to take risks and that it’s okay if you don’t always have the answer.”

In addition to learning key STEM skills, students get first-hand experience with critical thinking, presentation skills, teamwork and good sportsmanship. To foster that experience, the DTE Energy Foundation is sponsoring a total of 16 middle school teams and 20 high school teams this season, with a total grant of $300,000.

Chávez said being a part of making a difference in the lives of children makes any monetary donation or time commitment worthwhile.

“Helping students learn these valuable skills that may provide the seeds for a bright, fulfilling future is a rewarding experience for all involved,” she said.