Team members talk with a resident at the D.J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans.

Pick any day during the FIRST Tech Challenge season and you will find the North Star Academy Robogators hard at work in the rented-out basement of a Marquette area church.

The goal? To build a high-tech robot to compete in the ultra-competitive Michigan FTC qualifiers. Along the way, this small team makes a giant impact on their Upper Peninsula community.

“I think it’s important that our team not only learns about STEM and robotics, but also sees the impact you can have giving back to those around you,” said Laura Farwell, coach of the Robogators. “We live in a community that struggles with poverty so anytime we can put a smile on other people’s faces, it’s worth it.”

The Robogators, a team that DTE Energy supports with grant funding from its foundation, host Robot Night once a month at the D.J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans in Marquette.

During this event, veterans get hands-on access to drive a robot and make lasting connections with the students. The students made such a strong impression with one elderly veteran that after he passed away, his family made a significant donation to the team.

“It’s fun to talk to the older veterans about what they did as kids and the technology they used growing up,” said Torrey Cookman, member of the Robogators. “Interacting and showing the vets what we are doing is a great way to start a conversation. It’s a lot of fun to just talk with them and learn about their lives.”


A “robot driver license” the team issues to residents.

Owen Nettleton, another team member, said he enjoys teaching the veterans about FTC and how to drive the robot, nicknamed Roberta.

“At first it’s hard to get the veterans to drive Roberta,” Nettleton said. “But once they do, it’s fun, and they don’t want to stop.”

Most of the veterans at the home suffer from some sort of health issue, such as memory loss. The monthly Robot Night is a highlight for the residents.

“We’ve made an effort to get programs for our members that involve the younger generation and activities that they are interested in, or used to have a career in,” said Shari Smith, the Therapeutic Activities Coordinator for the D.J. Jacobetti Home. “You can see the excitement of our members when the kids walk in, it’s truly something they look forward to and cherish.”

To further boost the experience for the veterans, the Robogators started passing out robot driving licenses to the members that participated.

“I remember one veteran was so happy, he showed every nurse, visitor, and member he could find,” Farwell said.

In addition to Robot Night, the Robogators travel to surrounding elementary schools to build interest in STEM and FIRST Robotics. They hold demos to show off all the cool things the robot can do.

“The Robogators’ visit to our school was eye opening to our students,” said Becky Cookman, a third-grade teacher at K.I. Sawyer Elementary School. “They were so inspired by the fact that kids, just several years older than them, could make a real moving robot from a pile of parts without out an instruction manual. My students regularly ask about the Robogators and eagerly await a return visit.”

For Farwell, she understands the positive affect her team can make and is continuously looking to share these types of experiences.

“To have a program like FIRST, and to build a potential pipeline with companies like DTE, that can translate into a future for our kids, it’s magnificent,” Farwell said. “I just want to spread that opportunity to as many students as possible.”

Farwell also recognizes the invaluable support companies like DTE provides her team, so it’s all about paying it forward.

“What DTE does for our team is incredible,” Farwell said. “It not only makes a difference in our season, but allows our team to make a difference in the Marquette community.”

North Star Academy is one of more than 30 DTE-sponsored robotics teams making a positive impact in their communities.