Design Engineering

Youth robotics global championship returns to Detroit

By Mike Householder   


First Nation’s students among thousands competing in the biggest youth robotics event in the world.

The Toronto high school students comprising Woburn Collegiate Institute’s Team 188 are just some of the thousands currently vying in the 2019 FIRST Championship. (Photo credit: FIRST Robotics Canada)

Thousands of students from dozens of countries are in Detroit competing in the biggest youth robotics event in the world. Still, organizers of the FIRST Championship hope it gets a lot bigger.

“Here in the United States, about 12% of schools have a FIRST team, serving 18% of the students. So, there’s still a lot of kids out there that don’t have easy access to our programs,” said Don Bossi, the president of FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

“And that’s our passion. That’s our mission to make these programs available and accessible to every kid everywhere.”

More than 40,000 people are attending this year’s event, including 17,000 students representing 700 teams from 35 countries.


Bossi, a former tech executive with a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT, said the Manchester, New Hampshire-based non-profit is trying to attract more students, including from under-represented communities.

Mary Pangowish, 17, is the captain of the First Nations STEM team that qualified for its first FIRST Championship in only its fifth year of existence.

“We’re a team of all First Nations kids. We are all Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi,” Pangowish said. “We’re the first of our kind, really, to come to the world championships. We’ve never seen an all-indigenous team make it to the world championships.”

Pangowish worked with her teammates on their robot between matches and spent time spreading the word about their journey to the Motor City.

When a FIRST judge visited the First Nations STEM team’s area in the pits, Pangowish told her: “We’re so proud to be here. We want to show our culture. We want to show that we’re just as capable as everyone else.”

And they did both, competing successfully in the outer space-themed matches and at one point heading outside to take part in a traditional cleansing ceremony.

“We’re kind of blazing a trail for indigenous students to follow in our footsteps, to know that they can experience the world championships, because they deserve it just as much as any other team,” Pangowish said.

The FIRST Championship also was held in Detroit last year and will be back in 2020. Matches are held during the week at the Cobo Center downtown before moving to Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, on Saturday for the event’s championship matches.


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