FIRST Robotics is much more than building robots for competition. For many students, it provides exposure to a wide range of career paths. And for many adults, it’s a chance to develop coaching and mentoring skills while giving back to their communities. 

For Popy Aziz, IT technical analyst, it’s both. 

Popy joined the Pink Panthers robotics team as a freshman at the Detroit International Academy for Young Women. The team struggled with funding and materials in their early years, but with the help of their mentors and coaches, they found the University of Michigan’s “MEZ,” a space where multiple teams build their robots and have access to materials. Then the 8-member team split into specific roles: design, mechanics, engineering, programming. 

“Thanks to dedicated teachers and volunteer mentors, we learned a lot during that time,” said Aziz. “Being in a space with other teams helped us keep a positive attitude that continued into competitions where we helped each other, but we also wanted to win.” 

When Aziz went to college at Wayne State, she volunteered at the MEZ with her team to pass on her knowledge and expertise to the next class of students. She was even able to see her little sister experience FIRST, and become a team lead for the Pink Panthers. 

“Teaching and doing with someone is more valuable than telling them what to do,” says Aziz. Many of the students on the team are from Bangladeshi or Arab backgrounds, and their parents are immigrants, so English is a second language. “Not only are students learning STEM skills through FIRST, but also communication skills.”  

Aziz says FIRST also gives students exposure to engineering, something that’s not always seen as an option for young women. “They see a lot of people going into biology or chemistry, but not STEM. This is where FIRST Robotics comes in. FIRST gave that chance to us for engineering,” she says.

Aziz says FIRST is important for young women to gain important skills in teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving, but also technical skills. She thinks it’s especially important for young women to learn programming, and that often there aren’t women taking on that role on FIRST teams.  

During college, Aziz not only volunteered with the Pink Panthers, but she also worked at DTE as a co-op. She majored in Computer Science in college since she enjoyed coding so much–a skill she learned through FIRST–and she now works full-time at DTE.

This season, Aziz has had the opportunity to volunteer at various FIRST events throughout southeast Michigan, including the recent State Championship where the Pink Panthers competed and next week at the FIRST World Championship here in Detroit. Next year, Aziz will return to her former team as a mentor, to keep passing on the lessons she’s learned through her time with FIRST.

It’s not too late to check out FIRST this season. The FIRST Championship lands at Cobo Center April 24-27, bringing 40,000 students and spectators from around the world to Detroit. It’s free to attend, and 13 DTE-supported teams will be competing. Join us!