Soapbox: Being first at FIRST robotics in Windsor and Essex County

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Flip through the beautiful, glossy pages of the Canadian Association of Mold Makers 2014-15 directory and you will find the words “innovation, technology and investing in the future” repeated time and again.


It is fitting that among the articles and ads featuring local manufacturing companies you’ll find, on Page 46, an advertisement featuring the logos of CAMM, the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association and FIRST Robotics Canada together under one heading: Industry Mentors Wanted.


The advertisement hails an exciting partnership between CAMM/APMA and Windsor Essex FIRST Robotics to grow the FIRST Robotics program in our region that is all about innovation, technology and investing in the future of our region.


FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and it is a robotics competition that partners high school students and professional engineers, programmers, skilled workers and entrepreneurs to dream up, design and build 120-pound robots that compete inside an arena.


FIRST is sponsored by 3,000 companies worldwide, including half of all Fortune 500 companies such as Boeing, Bombardier, Chrysler and Google because these companies recognize the need to cultivate the next generation of engineers and skilled workers to fuel industry growth.


FIRST Robotics also confronts the high youth unemployment rate in our region by directing young people into fields where there is job growth such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


More than cultivating workers, the great promise of FIRST is cultivating the next generation of job creators. Each team is run like a startup company with 30 students sharing roles such as electrical, mechanical, programming, graphic design, public relations and finance.


This is real project management experience that cultivates leadership and soft skills such as teamwork, communication, analytical skills and resilience.


FIRST Robotics does for young people today what Lowe Technical School did for a generation of local manufacturing entrepreneurs such as Michael Solcz Sr., who founded Valiant Machine and Tool a half century ago and turned it into a half-billion-dollar global manufacturing company that employs thousands in Windsor.


Robotics, by the way, is the fastest growing industry in the world, according to a new report published by the largest employment law firm in the United States.


Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder believes in FIRST Robotics so much that he doubled the state’s financial support in his State of the State Address in order to make Michigan the leading jurisdiction in FIRST.


And so the commitment by CAMM and APMA to help recruit industry professionals as mentors for high school robotics teams across Windsor and Essex could not have come at a better time.


Windsor-Essex FIRST Robotics is experiencing the same challenges as many local manufacturing companies, which is sustaining rapid growth. Over the last two years, the number of high school FIRST Robotics teams has grown from just one to 15 teams across Windsor-Essex, including a community team in Chatham-Kent launched by St. Clair College and Union Gas.


There are also 24 LEGO robotics teams at the grade school level competing in the FIRST Lego League.


Teams need industry mentors to survive. That partnership between students and mentors is the beating heart of FIRST Robotics. Students look up to industry mentors who share their passion and know-how while school teachers appreciate sharing some of the responsibilities.


In addition to robotics teams, Windsor is also one of seven cities in Canada to host a regional robotics tournament. The second annual Windsor Essex Great Lakes Robotics Regional will be held at the University of Windsor April 1-4, 2015, and — as the largest robotics tournament in Canada — will draw more than 50 teams and 2,000 students from across North America.


Annually, the tournament pumps up to $1 million into the local economy and it belongs to Windsor as long as we can support it financially and with volunteers.


Local companies such as Valiant, Centerline, Chrysler, Reko, NARMCO, Unconquered Sun and Vista Solutions recognize the value of FIRST Robotics by supporting the tournament and teams with sponsorships, mentors and volunteers.


Some companies invite teams to build their robots on their factory floor right next to a battalion of multimillion-dollar industrial robots. Together, in partnership with schools and community stakeholders, they are empowering our youth to build our future.


The time is now for more industry partners across the region to step up and supercharge our region’s economic future by supporting our growing FIRST Robotics community and the young people who drive it forward.


Dr. Irek Kusmierczyk is a director of robotics and youth programs at WEtech Alliance and city councillor for Ward 7.


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