East Grand Rapids — A banner pinned to the wall of the East Grand Rapids High School robotics team workspace says it all: “It’s not about the robot.”
And it’s not — at least not completely.
Just ask Audrey Krajewski, a junior who thrives in the environment of collaboration and mentorship fostered by the program.
“It’s so much more about the impact that we have on our community,” Audrey said.
That impact comes in many forms, from mentoring elementary- and middle-school students hoping to join EGR’s FIRST Robotics Competition Team 5980 when they enter high school, to working with new teams from other parts of the world.
“It’s not about the robot entirely, because you’re being exposed to the whole community, whether it’s local or global,” said senior Tim Knape.
Tim is the project manager for Team 5980, heading up business strategies for the club, while Audrey is on the coding crew and represents the group on the East Grand Rapids Schools Foundation.
As the team’s build season started up in mid-January, Tim, Audrey and freshman Colette Kanngiesser talked about what robotics means to them, as well as their own ambitions and hopes for the future of the club.
“I think this is probably the most rewarding club or team at the school, for what you get out of it,” Tim said.
Audrey and Colette nodded in agreement.
‘There’s a place for everyone, whether you can come two nights a week or you’re always there, you always have a place on the team, and that’s definitely special.’— EGR High School freshman Colette Kanngiesser
Global, Local Connections
Short for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” the FIRST Robotics Competition program fits into EGR Public Schools’ mission to prepare students for success in a global community.
One element of the program that helps achieve that goal is the Excellence in Global Relations initiative, through which the robotics team has communicated with dozens of counterparts from around the world.
The results have transcended STEM, said Audrey.
“I’m close with kids in Greece now, close with kids in Serbia, kids in London. … It’s really cool,” she said. “We’re connected through the FIRST program — through the basic principles of science and technology — but then we also have vastly different but also vastly similar lives, in our countries, in our hobbies. We’ve been able to connect with them over robotics and their different cultures.”
The team is proud of its global connections as well as its local ones, which have been nurtured by sponsors like the EGR Schools Foundation.
The foundation contributes to the club each year, and as part of its record-breaking fall 2023 grant round, it awarded the team $6,000 to cover competition fees.
“It allows us to allow students to join without having to pay for anything,” Tim said.
“There’s no barrier to entry,” added Audrey. “It’s something we’re really proud of, in addition to the more technical aspects of our team.”
For Tim, robotics is all-consuming. He pours himself into it as he prepares to pursue a career in secondary education after graduating.
But back when he started, in sixth grade, he needed a little nudge from his mom before he knew how great a fit it would be.
“My mom was like, ‘OK, you’re doing that.’ I was like, ‘Why? I don’t have any interest in it.’ She was like, ‘You have to do it.’ About two meetings in, I was like, ‘OK, yeah, this is a lot of fun.’
“I guess I found what I guess I was missing.”
Audrey got involved through a sixth-grade STEM class called Innovation Lab.
“I had a really good teacher. He made me aware of the team at the middle school. … So I reached out to the principal and the coach at the time and … everything kind of snowballed from there,” Audrey said.
She said she’s learned a lot about herself through the program, and even found a potential career path.
“I definitely think that studying engineering in college is something I’ll pursue, but I’ve also learned about how I like to speak and how I like to be kind of connected with people all over the world. So I’m thinking I could also be interested in law.”
Her interests are varied, and robotics is the lynchpin. It’s the spark that ignited her curiosity about pretty much everything.
“This has been probably the greatest thing that I’ve done for myself, one of the greatest experiences of my life, because I’ve grown so much as a writer and public speaker, but I’ve also learned a lot of technical skills that I didn’t think I’d ever be capable of learning,” Audrey said.
Colette is a newcomer by comparison, but she said she’s “totally loving it,” and already feeling like she’s found her place. She is primed to take over Tim’s responsibilities once he graduates.
“I think because of it I might go into a career related to business, because I really, really like business a lot. So it’s kind of influenced my life in that way,” she said.
The Season Approaches
Tim, Audrey, Colette and their teammates will spend the coming weeks working just about every day to build and program a robot that can complete various tasks outlined in FIRST’s parameters for the season.
The first competition is March 8-9 in Lake City, followed by another March 22-23 at Grand Valley State University. Then comes the state competition, which the EGRHS team has qualified for more often than not since its inception in 2015.
The team hopes to add to its collection of three Impact Awards, which acknowledge overall excellence in organization, planning, mentoring, collaborating — “everything that’s not a robot,” Tim said..
Team members are also excited about the new STEM spaces outlined in the district’s November 2023 bond proposal. The hope is that the new space will allow for more collaboration between the high-school team and FIRST outlets at the elementary and middle levels.
The team also hopes to keep growing, and bringing in more incoming high-schoolers to fill vacancies left by graduating seniors. Participation is stabilizing after a lull during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s always room for more.
‘This has been probably the greatest thing that I’ve done for myself, one of the greatest experiences of my life, because I’ve grown so much as a writer and public speaker, but I’ve also learned a lot of technical skills that I didn’t think I’d ever be capable of learning.’— EGR High School junior Audrey Krajewski
Tim said if people knew just how much the program has to offer, the team’s numbers would surge.
“I don’t think people realize that robotics is so much more than putting nails together and doing coding and stuff like that,” he said. “We have the business team, we have the code team, we have the build team, but it operates like this mini company. You have your product, which is your robot. … Your customer is the judges, and the product needs to perform well in the competitions.”
There’s something for everyone, said Colette.
“Whether you can come two nights a week or you’re always there, you always have a place on the team,” she said, “and that’s definitely special.”
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