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Robotics team: Building robots and a future in STEM

Michigan businesses are projected to have more than 16,000 STEM job openings each year. But many kids are not exposed to STEM possibilities.

 

 

ZETIA HOGAN

PRINCIPAL

Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School (FLICS), Detroit

Kids see passion in athletics, They see passion in movies or music. Robotics – they don’t

get to see people passionate about that.

 

 

This U-M alum is helping to inspire the next generation of engineers through robotics.

 

 

LEON PRYOR

ENGINEER, ROBOTICS COACH

Graduate, University of Michigan College of Engineering

You know, I look at the city of Detroit, right? Where manufacturing allowed so many families to transition to the middle class and do really well. Well, things have shifted. We have to train our kids for 21st-century jobs.  So I see robotics as an opportunity — and really any STEM activity — as a means of teaching kids these skills.

 

 

Leon Pryor began helping his son’s robotics team in 2018. Now, he’s led two youth robotics teams to success.

 

 

XAVIER

STUDENT

Marygrove High School, Detroit

I actually really, really love this team because it’s kind of like no limitations on what I can do.

 

TYRE

STUDENT

Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School (FLICS), Detroit

Being on the team involves, you know, making friendships, being able to create brand-new things together.

 

STAJA

STUDENT

Marygrove High School, Detroit

It’s making my high school experience amazing, honestly. I’m doing things I never thought I would ever do.

 

 

AMARA

STUDENT

Marygrove High School, Detroit

The ability to be able to develop as an engineer, the ability to fully wire a robot from scratch or fully build a robot, like cutting with power tools, designing the robot, and being able to code a full robot from scratch with an autonomous mode: these are all super-valuable skills that a lot of us didn’t have.

 

PRYOR

In the course of 10 to 12 weeks, they do the equivalent of a 500- or 600-level engineering course, where they’re given a difficult problem, they’re not given any instructions, they don’t have enough resources to get it done –  it’s kind of like real life. The kids that can successfully navigate that are set up for any career in any field.

 

 

Leon also helped found the Motor City Alliance, which connects over 100 youth robotics teams across Metro Detroit.

 

 

PRYOR

Detroit teams were working in silos and weren’t working together. Hey, let’s share information, right? Like, let’s get our teams together, let’s practice on the weekends. Now we’ve more than doubled the number of state qualifying Detroit teams. We’re seeing other teams in Detroit going to teams that are less experienced in helping them. I like to say our mission of the Alliance is to change the culture of STEM in Detroit, and we’re starting to see that.

 

Leon’s support has helped Detroit’s FLICS School team win the state robotics championship, and qualify for the world robotics championship in Houston, TX.

 

TYRE 

We were just really excited. The championships inspired me to continue doing robotics when I get older.

 

ASLAN

STUDENT

Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School (FLICS), Detroit

It was really fun there. I learned from people all over the world, I got to learn about other places. It really made everyone happy. As a new team, we have done great.

 

PRYOR

Making it through that door as the first team from a Detroit Public School is absolutely huge.

 

ASLAN

I can guarantee that we wouldn’t have gone to Worlds or States without Coach Pryor. I love him. He’s one of my favorite people, and he just wants to pass down and help other people get into the engineering field. 

 

STAJA

He’s very dedicated to our team, and I look up to him. I really do.

 

HOGAN 

This generation, I feel like they’re so open to the use of technology, their imagination can take us further than we even know if they have a passionate adult guiding the way.

 

 

More than 1,000 Metro Detroit students have benefited from Leon’s guidance and support.

 

 

PRYOR

I talk to many of my kids and I’m basically saying the best thing that you can do in life is to find a way to make what you do for a living your passion. The lessons that they’re learning from this experience will help them no matter what they do.

 

Video Produced by Jarrett Begick, Michigan Media All photos by Eric Bronson (unless otherwise noted), Michigan Photography
By Greta Guest, Michigan News

DETROIT—Amara Small had already spent 11 years working on coding and building robots when she joined the robotics team at the School at Marygrove in her junior year.

“I’ve been super into that since I was really young, because it’s like a sport really,” said Small, whose mother is an engineer. “And that’s so much different from building robots at your house. It’s very competitive and the hands-on work is a lot more rigorous.”

Amara Small smiling and looking out of a classroom window

Amara Small joined the robotics team at the School at Marygrove in her junior year. She credits coach Leon Pryor for expanding her coding language and developing her into a team player.

She credits team coach Leon Pryor for expanding her coding language and developing her into a team player.

“He’s great at guiding you through a problem without telling you ‘this is the answer,'” Small said. “The ability to be able to develop as an engineer, the ability to fully wire a robot from scratch or fully build a robot, like cutting with power tools, designing the robot, and being able to code a full robot from scratch with an autonomous mode, these are all super valuable skills that a lot of us didn’t have.”

 “When I saw all these teams at the World Championships in Houston, it inspired me to continue doing robotics. It was a very fun and memorable event. I think if Mr. Pryor and the team weren’t here, then I think people would miss out … on being able to be a part of a robotics community.”

~ Tyre Ramey, FLICS Detroit team member

Pryor, a University of Michigan alum and a senior game producer at Meta, got involved in robotics competitions when his son, at the time an elementary schooler in the Detroit Public Schools system, competed in a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition in 2018. He noticed that other teams seemed to have more support. Since then, he’s led two youth robotics teams to success.

Pryor helped create the Motor City Alliance, a 501c3 that works with more than 100 metro Detroit elementary and middle school teams to help them compete and win national robotics competitions.

Leon Pryor laughing with students as they stand around a device they created

Leon Pryor, a University of Michigan alum and a senior game producer at Meta, got involved in robotics competitions with his son in 2018. He led Detroit’s FLICS School team to the World Championship in Houston earlier this year. Photo by Elizabeth Conley, special to Michigan Photography.

“Now we’ve more than doubled the number of state qualifying Detroit teams,” he said. “I like to say our mission of the alliance is to change the culture of STEM in Detroit, and we’re starting to see that.”

The Motor City Alliance had its first team—Detroit’s FLICS School team—go to the World Championship in Houston earlier this year.

And what an impression that made on team members.

“When I saw all these teams at the World Championships in Houston, it inspired me to continue doing robotics,” said student Tyre Ramey. “It was a very fun and memorable event. I think if Mr. Pryor and the team weren’t here, then I think people would miss out … on being able to be a part of a robotics community.”

Students fist bump each other at a competition

Student Tyre Ramey, center, said the experience competing in Houston was memorable and fun “being able to be a part of a robotics community.” Photo by Elizabeth Conley, special to Michigan Photography.

More than a thousand students have benefited from Pryor’s support and coaching so far. He coaches team 14010 TechnoPhoenix, the FIRST Tech Challenge team at Detroit’s Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School, or FLICS, as well as the FIRST Robotics Challenge team at the School at Marygrove, team 8280 K9.0 Robotics.

FIRST Robotics is a program where school teams design and build robots to compete in an annual contest. Each team is given a basic robotics kit, but it’s up to them to decide how to approach the design and what components to use.

Pryor said exposing kids early to STEM and problem solving will help them fit into the future economy and jobs landscape.

Students looking at a device they built while Leon Pryer uses a laptop

Pryor says coaching the robotics team helps to train students for 21st century jobs. Photo by Elizabeth Conley, special to Michigan Photography.

Michigan will see more than 16,000 job openings in STEM fields annually through 2028, according to a recent report of long-term employment projections from the state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives.

“There’s a time where you could have a manufacturing job and make six figures and do really well,” Pryor said. “Well, those things have shifted because of automation and things moving offshore. We have to train our kids for 21st-century jobs.”

Tymon Ray smiles while leaning against a wall with a The School at Marygrove sign

Tymon Ray, whose son Ryan Ray is on the robotics team at Marygrove, said he was really impressed with how Pryor made the team’s culture a top priority. “It’s teamwork. It’s being on time. It’s helping each other out…”

Being on the robotics team isn’t easy. In the span of 10 to 12 weeks, students do the equivalent of a 500-level engineering course that starts with giving them a difficult problem.

“They’re not given any instructions, any guidance. They don’t have enough resources to get it done,” Pryor said. “It’s kind of like real life. The kids that can successfully navigate that are set up for any career in any field.”

Tymon Ray, whose son, Ryan Ray, is on the robotics team at Marygrove, said he was impressed with how Pryor made the team’s culture a top priority.

Leon Pryor talking with robotics team students

Coach Leon Pryor works with the robotics team at the School at Marygrove, Detroit. “We are actually making some fundamental changes for the better for a lot of families in Detroit.”

“It’s teamwork. It’s being on time. It’s helping each other out. It’s sacrificing for the team. It’s doing your part. Even if you’re not as involved, be a cheerleader for your team,” Ray said. “So those are just a few things, but I think those are pretty important. And I think those carry over into life, period.”

Robotics team students standing behind a robot they built

Building robots at the School at Marygrove, Detroit.

Michigan has more robotics teams than football teams with 533 FTC teams in the state, and just 3% of the 7,000 active teams in the world can qualify for the World Competitions.

“And we’re in that top 3%,” Pryor said.

Robotics teams competing inside of an arena

Teams from more than 30 countries compete at the FIRST World Robotics Championships in Houston. Photo by Elizabeth Conley, special to Michigan Photography.

The administration at Marygrove has created a maker space for Pryor’s FRC team, allowing the students to build within the school. The team originally built robots at the College of Engineering’s Michigan Engineering Zone at the U-M Detroit Center. The MEZ continues to support the team and collaborates with Pryor and the Motor City Alliance and the Marygrove K9.0 Robotics, said Haley Hart, the MEZ director.

Leon Pryor smiling and wearing a robotics team jersey.

U-M alumnus Leon Pryor helped create the Motor City Alliance, a 501c3 that works with more than 100 metro Detroit elementary and middle school robotics teams to help them compete and win national robotics competitions.

FLICS principal Zetia Hogan said the robotics program helps students build critical thinking skills.

“The young scholars in this generation, I feel like they’re so open to the use of technology that it can be an influx into the STEM field like we’ve never seen before,” she said.

And while Pryor hopes students will go on to college and stick with STEM fields, if they don’t, they will at least acquire important skills for life.

“So while I really do enjoy this work, and I love seeing the kids grow, the social implications of this are not lost on me,” he said. “We are actually making some fundamental changes for the better for a lot of families in Detroit. And that just feels like a worthy goal to me.”

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