Mobility Moments Podcast: Don Bossi, FIRST Robotics

Mobility is in our future, and Detroit is the region leading the world in mobility. Here in Michigan we are cultivating the very best talent with innovative, industry specific training and education. Some kids are getting a start early through FIRST Robotics. What's the connection between a kids' robotics club and Detroit's future mobility talent?

What's an autonomous vehicle? Honestly, it's a robot. It's hardware, and electrical signals, and software--all working together to make something move or to do something intelligent. Our kids, by building robots as young as age six, are getting exposed to the types of knowledgebase and skills, not just on the science side, but also oftentimes on the teamwork and collaboration side.

That was Don Bossi, President of FIRST, the organization that blends STEM problem solving with the excitement of sport for school-aged kids. On April 25th, Detroit's Cobo Center will host the FIRST championship. Don is our guest today on Mobility Moments Podcast. I'm Claire Charlton.

Don, welcome. I'm so glad that you're here with us today.

It's my pleasure to join you. Thanks for inviting me.

Let's start by talking about FIRST. What exactly is FIRST Robotics?

FIRST is really the world's leading youth serving not-for-profit organization that advances science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Our mission is to inspire the next generation of science and technology leaders and innovators. We do that through a whole series of programs starting as young as age six and all the way up to age 18. We use robotics as an engaging platform that gets kids excited about science and technology and we kind of make a sport out of it. We make it fun.

It's about accomplishing challenges and then attending competitions that allow you to show the world what you've accomplished and see what a lot of other teams have done as well.
The FIRST Robotics Championship will be held April 25-28 at COBO Center

Can you paint a picture for us of the FIRST championship that's happening in Detroit? How many competitors, what geographic regions are represented? What's at stake for the participants?

Sure. I think the best way to describe it, to create a visual image, is you can kind of think of it as the Superbowl of STEM. It's every bit as exciting and as much energy as attending the football Superbowl. It'll have kids, probably about 15,000 student participants, from around half of the world. We actually have two championships we've grown so big. Our Detroit championship will have about 25 states represented, mostly from the northern and eastern United States but also Canada and 35 other countries, primarily Europe, the Middle East.

It will be about 35,000 attendees in total. Seven hundred teams will be there attending, and it's really the culmination of their season. They've worked all academic year, then in local competitions, regional competitions, state or country competitions, and now this is sort of the "best of the best" advancing to join us in Detroit to show the world what they've got. Honestly, what's at stake is just bragging rights. It's points of incredible pride, a lot of emotion, a lot of people so passionate to show what they've accomplished, and to see that on a world stage, where they get to meet with the best of the best from all around the world.

Why is Detroit such an appropriate choice for this competition?

Well, I think it's actually a great choice for our championship because Detroit has a long history as a center for technology and innovation. Obviously, there's the automotive or mobility industry that's been headquartered there for a long time, but increasingly we're seeing new companies like Quicken Loans and such, in different fields and with different technologies, really making Detroit their home.

We really feel that there's a great kindred spirit in terms of that building, making, innovating type of mentality. Also, we think the fact that Detroit is the comeback city is another great parallel with FIRST. We really teach kids that it's okay to stumble, it's okay to fail as long as you pick yourself up, you dust yourself off, and you keep moving forward. Every invention won't be a home run right out of the chute, and sometimes you have to listen to the market and adjust and continue to grow.

Really, one of the traits we teach kids is about grit and persistence and I think Detroit is a wonderful living example of a U.S. city that's going through a tremendous renaissance. We're proud to bring the FIRST championship there and show the world what Detroit has done.

Can you tell me who is a typical FIRST Robotics participant?

Well, typical is hard to say. I would say it's really any kid from age six through 18. In some senses, you could say the kids in our program fall into two camps. One is kids who are naturally interested in science and technology and math. This kind of gives them a way to really refine and deepen that interest to take it to the next level, to apply what they find interesting in school to real world challenge.

The other great part of our community is really kids who aren't interested in math and science, or maybe turned off by the way it's presented in a traditional classroom. For them, bringing in the excitement of a team and a sport maybe gets them involved, and suddenly for the first time they actually see what is math and science good for, what can you accomplish by knowing these things, why do I need to know Pythagorean's theorem?

This really kind of brings what they hear about in the classroom to life for them and so we find it really is the inspirational complement to what they're learning about in their education. There's really kids from all different backgrounds. More than a third of our participants are young women, people from all nationalities, all backgrounds, all different types of demographics. I would say they're just young people that are full of passion and excitement.

Don Bossi, president of FIRST
What does research show about participation in FIRST and future stem careers?

Our programs really have impacted three different areas. The first is natural interest and intention when it comes to science and technology. Right away, because they see a purpose and because they get excited about it, kids have more interest in taking harder classes in school, doing well in their classes. It's an immediate type of impact all the way to starting to think--because we have a lot of industry based mentors in our programs--suddenly they start to think about careers in science or engineering or technology based companies.

They realize in order to get to those types of careers maybe they need to go to trade school, maybe they need to go to community college, maybe they need to go to a four-year college. It also gets them thinking more about college and career types of opportunities. In addition to basic interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, I'd say our programs also really get kids excited about innovation and entrepreneurship.

Our teams run like small businesses so everything from marketing, to finance, to project management, to project development, and engineering. Kids are exposed to a whole host of backgrounds and really get a feel for what running a startup business is like. Lastly, because we're a team-based sport, we really teach kids a lot about communication, collaboration, teamwork, how to listen, how to lead, how to follow, all those soft skills that every employer realizes are just as important as the hard skills. Oftentimes, kids don't get exposed to them in a science and technology based environment in the traditional classroom.

Can you draw a connection for us between the skills that students can develop through First and future careers specifically in the connected and autonomous vehicle sector?

Absolutely. We always say that our programs are really not about kids building robots, but about robots building kids. The types of skills, and experiences, and capabilities that they get in our program, whether it's learning or applying math and science, whether it's the teamwork, the collaboration skills, whether it's design thinking, all of those types of skills are the types of skills that are used in any type of industry, but in particular for developing autonomous vehicles.

Can you share a Detroit specific success story? Are there Detroit automotive industry professionals who got their start as FIRST competitors?

Well, there's absolutely a lot of success stories for kids from Detroit and from Michigan. One that comes to mind right away didn't start in Michigan, actually it's a gentleman by the name of Kyle Vogt who grew up in Kansas City, was on a FIRST team when he was in high school, later went on to attend MIT as an undergrad, founded a company called Twitch which does online media streaming.

More recently, he started a company called Cruise Automation that was acquired by General Motors in May of 2016 for more than a billion dollars. It's really to see that Kyle got his start in high school on a FIRST team and is now running a really, really important project within General Motors and has had a lot of success, and I don't think he's even 40-years-old yet, so that's pretty impressive.

Then, another story that comes to mind is a young woman by the name of Nicki Bonczyk who, again, fell in love with FIRST when she was on a robotics team in her high school in Holland, Michigan. She went on to attend Grand Valley State University where she majored in product design and manufacturing engineering. Because of that she actually interned at a company called JR Automation where they later hired her and she's now employed full-time as a mechanical engineer.

The best part of the story is Nicki still remains involved with FIRST as a mentor, as an event volunteer, and so she's already giving back to the next generation of young people.

Wonderful. Mentorship is an important part of FIRST programming. How are Detroit companies serving as mentors?

Many, many companies throughout Detroit and the Detroit area serve as mentors to FIRST teams. All the big three automotive manufacturers, all of their suppliers, really mentors are a key part of our secret sauce. We think they put real life role models in front of these students. A lot of kids, especially kids from underserved backgrounds or inner-city backgrounds, have never actually met a scientist or an engineer. They don't even know what they are or who they are, what they do. This kind of brings it into reality for them.

They meet someone who, "Oh wow, you have a job doing that all day? How do I get a job like that?" For many people it brings it into reality and they become great role models. The other thing I would stress is, a lot of our mentors are not just technical. All of our teams really run like little businesses. Well, some of them are not so little actually. At the high school level the teams are actually pretty significant companies, and so they need business mentors, they need marketing mentors, they need people who can help coach them on presentation skills.

We try to make sure that teams are surrounded by people from all different backgrounds and capabilities to help the kids grow in a very holistic manner.

Are there other ways that Detroit area companies can support FIRST?

There's lots of different avenues of which companies can get involved. Of course they can start or sponsor a team in their local high school, or mentor that team as well. The other thing we like to do is help highlight a company's technology to our students and show kids leading edge technology. For example, our FIRST Tech Challenge platform, which is aimed at middle to high school age kids, actually uses smartphones and tablets as the devices that they use to communicate with and control the robot.

We're trying to highlight the value of that cutting edge technology that all these kids have in their pockets that you can do a lot more than just text with it. In addition, a company like National Instruments supplies controllers to our FIRST Robotics competition. These are the exact same controllers that are running many, many processes and many, many plants throughout the Detroit area and throughout Michigan and throughout the world.

They're using the opportunity to expose our kids at a young age for the very tools and technologies that they'll be using when they go on to careers and industry throughout the world.

What do you think Detroit specifically can do during this competition to spark passion among students to consider starting mobility careers right here in Michigan?

That's where we're very excited to bring the FIRST Championship to Detroit on April 26th through 28th of this year. Our events are free and open to the public so we encourage everyone to come by and check it out. Be warned, you'll probably want to stay for longer than you anticipate because it's a lot of fun. We really like to invite people from the Detroit area, the Detroit community, to come see it and meet our participants from all over the world.

We're also encouraging our participants to get out, not just come to our event but check out Detroit, see what there is to offer. A lot of Detroit-based companies are helping to arrange tours or other exciting things around our championship to help show off all the great opportunities, both to work and to play, in the Detroit area. We'd love to have people come and check it out and we're going to be encouraging our kids to go out and see what there is in the community.

Also, I would say, hopefully as people come and see FIRST and hear about it, that they'll go back and say, "Hey, how do we get this started in our school?" If they don't already have team, how do we make this available to kids from our community or in our neighborhood schools?

What else do you want people to know about FIRST and how it contributes to a highly skilled future STEM workforce?

FIRST really gives kids a huge leg up in a competitive job environment. Just one example is, about 200 colleges and universities make about $70 million a year in scholarships available to our graduating seniors. That's because these colleges and universities recognize that the kids that go through FIRST programs really have been exposed to a lot of different skills and capabilities that they know employers want.

Again, it's not always the hard skills like the engineering or math and science, but a lot of times it's the teamwork and the collaboration and the ability to present. Again, it's really a great way to give kids an advantage. This isn't just for kids from privileged backgrounds. Really, our goal is to make these programs available and accessible to every kid everywhere. We know kids who come from underserved or underprivileged backgrounds oftentimes gain the most by getting access to our programs.

One of our real goals with bringing the championship to Detroit is to use this to highlight the impact and the excitement of these programs and to also outreach to local schools, local communities, either in the city of Detroit, or throughout Michigan, or throughout the world to really try to say, "Hey, how do we make these programs available and accessible to kids in your community? How do we ensure that every kid has an opportunity to get this leg up on the job market?"

Wonderful. We're so looking forward to this competition. Thanks Don, it's been a real pleasure talking with you about FIRST.

Thank you and I appreciate the time and the opportunity.

For Detroit Driven, this was Mobility Moments Podcast, I'm Claire Charlton. Learn more about how Detroit is the region leading the world in mobility at and subscribe to our newsletter.

This podcast was hosted by Claire Charlton and produced and edited by Nina Ignaczak with Issue Media Group for Driven.

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