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Michiana 2027: Benton Harbor robotics team training tomorrow’s engineers

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- Volunteers in Benton Harbor are keeping alive what is the oldest robotics team in Berrien and Cass counties.

“The moment you press the power button and you’ve programmed everything and you see it – you don’t even care if it does what you told it to do,” said Benton Harbor High School Junior Tamia Clay. “You just see it move. That feeling is just awesome! I can’t describe the feeling with words.”

Throughout the spring 2017 robotics season, Dannetta Moore documented her daughter Dyesha’s journey with Benton Harbor’s Tech Tigers team.

In videos she shot, you see ‘Robot 1940’ zipping through a crowded field of competitors, picking up objects, and climbing a rope.

All of this is happening as hundreds of students, parents, coaches and more cheer on the robots and the kids who made them.

“It’s grown and I’m so glad it has, right?” said Joseph Taylor, who helped found the Tech Tigers. “Because this is the way we teach science, engineering and technology to our young people for a 21st century education.”

The journey

By mid-afternoon each day, the halls of Benton Harbor High School have basically emptied out.

But for the last 13 years, when the school day ends, practice begins for the Tech Tigers Robotics Team.

“We want students to have higher expectations,” Taylor said. “We want students to be able to see something else other than what they see around them.”

Taylor helped start the program 13 years ago, and hasn’t stopped.

It was the first robotics team in Berrien and Cass counties.

Today, there are 12 teams between both counties. And across Michigan, there are 450 – the highest number in the country.

Just last season, the Tech Tigers made it to states for the first time.

“Man, I wanted to cry because if you think about it, the effort we’ve put in just to try to help kids and to see the results from our young people – phenomenal,” Taylor said.

Benton Harbor’s Lego League

“Now we are working towards actual competition,” Clay said, speaking to a group of fifth graders in a classroom on a Tuesday evening. “This is serious now from this point on.”

Benton Harbor’s program is now expanding, with help from its two shining stars.

“You think we should put a barrier on it?” Benton Harbor High School Junior Dyesha Moore asked another group of students. “Yeah!” the kids responded.

The Lego League has been brought back to Benton Harbor after ending several years ago.

Currently, two teams of 10 fifth graders are in their rookie year of robotics.

“I love their energy,” said Dyesha Moore, who joined the Tech Tigers last year and is now coaching the Lego League. “They’re always so excited! So happy! They’re ready to do something!”

She said spending her free time with the younger kids is worth it because it’s an investment in a program she fell in love with.

“When these students grow up, they’re going to go straight into the high school and they’ll be able to be on the robotics team on a grander scale,” Dyesha said.

Clay – her classmate, teammate, and fellow coach – said the Lego League not only educates, it inspires.

“To allow them to see a robot move and to see what their fellow peers have created – and to see it move and to see it perform in these competitions really, really changes their mindset and says, ‘Hey, I can do what they’re doing. I can be a part of that. That’s really cool. That’s exciting. I want to do that,’” Clay said.

The volunteers

The Lego League also has help from some experts.

Whirlpool engineer Mark Schmidt volunteers through work.

“If a kid never tried engineering and that was what they’re really passionate about, this program enables them to basically get excited about that and get them that interest early,” Schmidt said.

And retired structural stress analyst Del Patterson got involved, by chance, four years ago.

His grandson needed a ride to Tech Tiger practice; and Patterson got hooked.

“Ten years from now, I’ll be pushing 80,” he said. “Ten years from now, [the kids will] be just starting in their careers. And the kind of world I live in as an 80-year-old is going to be shaped, in a lot of ways, by these kids.”

The kids

One of those kids is 10-year-old Vanessa Sargent.

She said, because of the Lego League, she wants to be an engineer and a robotics teacher.

“This is my first time actually seeing robots move,” Sargent said. “Because sometimes I be [sic] watching Transformers and I don’t think they’re real because I didn’t see no [sic] robot before. And when I see robots move, I think it’s just so cool because all you got to do is tell it what to do and I like telling people what to do.”

The future

Each new day brings a new lesson in engineering for the kids.

And as robotics continues to grow in Benton Harbor, so does hope for the future.

“Ten years from now? I see a robotics team in every school in Benton Harbor Area Schools District,” Taylor said.

“Ten years from now, I will be back in Benton Harbor myself,” Dyesha said. “By then, I’ll be back in Benton Harbor myself establishing some things because that’s what I want to do. I want to go learn and be able to bring things back.”

And for Dyesha’s mom, Dannetta, one of the videos showing the 1940 robot climbing up a rope is not just an accomplishment, but a metaphor for what’s possible in Benton Harbor.

“Never settle,” Dannetta said. “We’ve already settled enough. Now it’s time to break open some doors; break open some walls. And engineering is the star that we’re reaching for. That’s the tool; that’s the mechanism that’s going to get us to that next place – where we want to be, not just in the educational arena, but as a community as a whole; because that brings in everything. Everything is tied to it now.”

The Lego League will be taking part in their first-ever competition on Saturday, November 18 up in Grand Rapids.

Everyone involved in the program wants to see it grow.

The Tech Tigers and the Lego League are in need of more volunteers – especially with engineering backgrounds – more technology, and more infrastructure.

And if you’re wondering why the team is called 1940? It’s because each robotics team is named after what number team it was in the country when it was created.

Today, there are more than 6,500 First Robotics teams in America.

Fast facts

In a 2013 report, the non-profit ‘Business Leaders for Michigan’ wrote that there are more engineers per capita in Michigan than any other state.

But the report also included a 3-step plan to bring more engineers to Michigan over the next 10 years, in order to stay at the top of the list.

That’s where robotics programs factor in.

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