You don’t have to be an expert at robotics to be a mentor. “You just need to be willing to put in time,” says John Bueltel, Marketing Manager with DTE, and seven-year mentor for the Rochester Adams High School AdamBots. 

This year’s FIRST qualifying events continue through the first weekend of April, as teams test their robots on the playing field for this year’s theme: “Destination: Deep Space.”  Teams compete to make it to the State Championship in Saginaw, and possibly, the FIRST Championship in Detroit.

DTE sponsors 23 FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) high school teams throughout Michigan, from metro Detroit and the thumb, Grand Rapids and Muskegon, and the Upper Peninsula. DTE employees and retirees put in countless hours mentoring to guide students along the way.  

Bueltel started mentoring with FIRST when his daughter joined the AdamBots. Both his daughter and son participated in FIRST and have since graduated high school, but Bueltel continues to work with the team. He says that not only is it fun to work on the bots, but it’s like “a microcosm of a typical work environment where you can see different social dynamics at play.” 

DTE Engineer Kelly Johnson started mentoring the Voyageur Cougar Pack in Detroit four seasons ago. She was looking for more consistent volunteer opportunities, and feels that mentoring is impactful for the students. Mentoring with FIRST is also a way to introduce careers in STEM to youth, and it keeps them engaged outside of the classroom. 

She stays because it’s really fun. 

This year, Johnson snagged fellow engineer Nisha Patel as a new mentor for the Cougar Pack. Patel wanted to give back to the city and saw the value of FIRST in the students’ lives. “I didn’t realize how much I was going to love it,” Patel says.  

Of course, mentoring doesn’t just impact the students. Skills learned as a mentor can translate to work at DTE. Mentors note that they’ve learned patience and listening skills from mentoring, as well as working together toward a common goal.  

Sometimes mentoring can become an integral part of life. Dan Katanski started volunteering with FIRST before most current high schoolers were even born. Katanski recently retired from DTE after 17 years and continues to spend time with FIRST. 

He logged over 400 volunteer hours with FIRST—just in 2018. 

FIRST Robotics opens up new possibilities for what kids think they can do,” says Katanski. “Students learn many skills outside of design, wiring or driving the robots. They also learn the business side of the game, and marketing the bots, along with skills in leadership and teamwork. The robot is the vehicle in which we teach them various life skills.”    

Katanski will be a judge at various competitions in southeast Michigan this March and April.   

Want to get in on the action? “This is a great time to learn more about FIRST and get involved with the program,” says Bueltel. “For those who don’t know much about FIRST, go to a competition and see what these kids are able to do.”