“All it took for me was one visit to my son’s FIRST Robotics practice and I was hooked,” says Justin Hayter, unit operator at DTE’s Monroe Power Plant. “I’ve been mentoring for seven seasons now, and it’s so rewarding to help kids solve problems and reach their potential.” 

Justin is one of many employees who give their time to FIRST Robotics, a program that helps young people learn technical skills like programming and using tools, plus business, teamwork and marketing. It’s a great way to get young people interested in STEM careers. The DTE Foundation sponsors 26 high school (FRC) teams this year, which helps them build their robot and compete through the season. 

Justin’s son Brendan wanted his dad to come help when he was on the Classical Engineers, a middle school (FTC) team. Brendan is now a senior in high school, and Justin has been mentoring the teams all along, even through the last two years of COVID. 

“It’s been tough for the kids, but they’ve pushed through, winning big awards virtually,” says Justin.  Teams are anticipating safely competing in person this year. “We’ve designed our build areas with dividers, so each group has their own workstation to minimize close contact. We also enforce wearing masks at all times during practice to minimize the spread of COVID.” 

Justin isn’t the only DTE employee volunteering with Bedford Express. Fred Key, instrument & control technician, also mentors the team. Fred got involved when his son was in the FIRST Lego League in elementary school; his son is now a junior with Bedford Express. Fred loves the competition and camaraderie at events, noting the “gracious professionalism” well known in FIRST, where teams help each other out during competition.  

“I knew FIRST was special when our FTC team had the opportunity to go to the World Competition, which was held in St. Louis that year,” he says. “There were college recruiters there from places like Yale and MIT. There were also large corporations like Boeing, Qualcomm and NASA with displays hoping to recruit these STEM students.”  

Fred continues to volunteer with FIRST, helping the team and also judging during events. 

Volunteering not only helps the students, but it’s rewarding for the mentors. “I really enjoy watching the kids grow as they make their way from middle school to high school,” says Justin. “They develop so many skills through these years, and you build a relationship with each kid and get to be a part of their life. It’s not even just about robotics; you get to know each kid at a personal level and help them develop skills in programming/building/electronics/strategy as well as other skills like speaking in public. I’ve watched many kids graduate from high school and go on to fantastic careers using the skills we helped teach them.” 

We are looking forward to safely cheering on the teams in person this year.