CLEVELAND — A lot of times it's the athletes on the field who get all the attention but there's a competition making a comeback this year that has a lot of "STEM-letes" flexing their muscles.
"We like to refer to it as a varsity sport of the mind," said JonDarr Bradshaw, the community engagement coordinator at Great Lakes Science Center and a volunteer with FIRST FRC Robotics.
After COVID cancellations, the FIRST Robotics competition is back. The Buckeye Regional qualifying matches were held in Cleveland at the Wolstein Center in 2018. They will return this March and the world championships will follow in April in Texas.
"It's the most intense and amazing experience we can give our students to get them interested in IT," said Chelsey Kohn, director of the Tech Talent Pipeline for CMSD and Cleveland State. "They build an extremely large robot. They go to a really fun competition and they get to learn about teamwork and helping each other along the way."
While many Northeast Ohio schools participate in FIRST FRC Robotics, it's rare for large urban districts to compete, and this year four Cleveland schools have teams.
Grants from the Great Lakes Science Center help make it possible. Specifically, reaching out to young women and minorities; both of whom are underrepresented in engineering fields.
"Part of our success as a nation is the fact that we are so diverse," said Bradshaw. "It brings in new ideas, new viewpoints and ways to tackle problems that are different."
Bringing their talents to the table include students like Quynh Tran, a senior at John Marshall School of Technology.
"Growing up I didn't know a lot of female engineers or computer scientists, so I want to be that example for everyone else," she said.
East Tech senior Jamyah Howard said he's inspired by his engineering teacher, Shawn Thomas, to pursue robotics.
"I really like the mechanical part of it," he said.
Thomas said there's something special about Howard and she knows he has a bright future.
"I've been working with him since his freshman year," she said. "I'm counting on him to do some positive things and continue on in the field of engineering."
Exposure and opportunity are so important for young minds. So is the support.
The teams have mentors during the six-week after-school program, helping them build their robots. Like Timothy Hatfield, who competed in First Robotics himself in high school and now works at PHASTAR Corporation.
"It feels amazing to pass down what I've learned to other students, and that they can carry the work on in hopes that they also become mentors themselves," said Hatfield.
The hope is also that the students become employed here at home in the IT field. It is one of Northeast Ohio's top industries; offering some of the most in-demand jobs with the best wages.
"If they're a student who likes IT there's a place for them," said Kohn. "You know, Cleveland needs home-grown Cleveland talent. Companies are going to leave the region if they don't get their positions filled."
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