DTE Energy Foundation’s grants support robotics teams

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Building a robot is no easy task.

Just ask De’Emerald Hardison, a seventh grader from the Detroit Leadership Academy.

“The hardest part about building a robot is making sure everything is ready to go before a competition and sticking together as a team even when your robot is not working well,” she said.

Hardison was one of thousands of middle school students from across Michigan this past weekend trying to land a spot in the state championship for First Technical Challenge (FTC), the middle school league for robotics competitions.

But before the student-led teams can even think about qualifying for the state championship, they need to build their robots from the ground up. To start, the teams get a basic kit from which to build their creation. Part of that kit is a module, the electronic device that helps the teams control the robot.

This year, the new kits for rookie teams included an upgraded module — a new “hub” module that replaces five other devices. That means the modules from former years — the ones the veteran teams already have and reuse annually — are out of date.

But thanks to a $50,000 grant from the DTE Energy Foundation, all veteran teams in Michigan’s First Technical Challenge league received new modules. That grant provides each team a rebuild kit, which run about $200 each. That’s a big cost for a middle school Robotics team.

“These upgrades are essential to teams — it really allows all teams to compete on a level playing field,” said Gail Alpert, who leads FIRST in Michigan. “And the grant from the DTE Energy Foundation means these teams can get the upgrade without having to spend hundreds of dollars just to be competitive.”

The importance of the DTE Energy Foundation’s grants and support have not gone unnoticed by DTE’s sponsored teams.

“To compete, you need money and we’re in a district that struggles financially so any little bit helps,” said Heather Lenz, coach of the Cesar Chavez Middle School team. “It all goes to getting the kids involved in technology and making sure they’re learning as they’re competing.”

The middle school robotics league, known as FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), is wrapping up its 2017 season this weekend with the state championship at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

High school teams, participating in First Robotics Competition (FRC), start their season Jan. 6, with many teams starting orientation and practice now. The work building, perfecting and testing the robots doesn’t stop for months.

And this year is particularly exciting for Michigan teams because the world championship is being hosted in Detroit at Cobo Center in late April, and will remain at that location for at least the next three years.

In all, the DTE Energy Foundation is sponsoring 16 FRC teams and 20 FTC teams across the state, with a total grant of $300,000. Also as part of that commitment, DTE Energy and its foundation are arranging for skilled-based volunteers for many teams.

Sebastian Cournoyer is the coach of a team in Algonac.

He’s also the manager of Distribution Operation Support at DTE and his two daughters participate on the robotics team. He said getting the support from the DTE Energy Foundation saves the team a few hundred dollars each season.

“It is awesome to get that support from the foundation,” he said.

The DTE will continue its comprehensive support to try and help all Michigan Robotics’ students realize their dreams of qualifying for either the state or world championships.

“Robotics is a way to inspire the next generation of Michiganders,” said Tracy DiSanto, manager of Workforce Development at DTE. “These students are the next great programmers, entrepreneurs and engineers for our state and DTE is proud to play a role in that development.”

Even though the Detroit Leadership Academy fell just short of qualifying for the state championship this year, students like Hardison know how much it would mean to them and their teams to reach that event in the future.

“It would mean everything,” she said.