Kettering goes to FIRST

Apr 25, 2008

The 2008 FIRST national championship games in Atlanta attracted some of the world's best students and companies in science and engineering - exactly what Kettering University is interested in!

Bigger and better each year.  The FIRST Championship has become an international phenomenon.  FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a not-for-profit organization founded by Dean Kamen ’01, who has worked for almost 20 years to prove that science and engineering are fun.  It appears to be working!

Twenty-five countries and 1,500 teams were part of FIRST Championships games in Atlanta from April 17-19.  Former President George H. Bush was the keynote speaker at opening ceremonies.  Governors at the event included Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia and Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii, where FIRST teams have grown from four to 26 teams.

The 2008 FIRST Championship featured three simultaneous contests:

  • FIRST Robotics Competition Championship,
  • FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship and
  • FIRST LEGO League World Festival.

Just how big has FIRST become (and why is Kettering involved)?

  • 10,410 students from 25 countries,
  • Almost $10 million in scholarships,
  • 525 robots built by high school students,
  • 5,000 mentors and coaches including many alumni,
  • 700 event volunteers,
  • Thousands of family members, teachers, VIP guests, sponsors, fans and local spectators,
  • Six playing fields in the Georgia Dome and
  • 250,000 square feet of extra space in the World Congress Building for scholarship/admissions tables and hundreds of individual “pit areas” for teams.

FIRST Robotics Competition Championship:

  • 344 teams,
  • 8,600 high school students,
  • Five countries represented: Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico and the United States and
  • This year’s game: FIRST Overdrive.

FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship:

  • 100 teams,
  • 1,000 high school students,
  • Four countries: Canada, Mexico, Singapore and the United States and
  • This year’s game: Quad Quandary.

FIRST LEGO League World Festival

  • 81 teams,
  • 810 middle school students,
  • Twenty-four countries: Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Egypt, Faroe Islands, France, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, The Netherlands, Peru, Republic of Korea (South Korea), Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States and
  • This year’s game: Power Puzzle.

Michigan is tops among the “big states” for team participation in FIRST.  Almost one-third of Michigan high schools now have a FIRST robotics team as a varsity sport.  More than 40 Michigan teams participated in the FIRST national championship games in Atlanta this year.

Bob Nichols ‘74, director of External Affairs at Kettering and founder of the Kettering Kickoff robotics contest, said the magnitude of the games is phenomenal.  “This is clearly an international event now,” he said, “and the scholarships offered by the educational partners of FIRST have become an essential part of the opportunity that FIRST offers.”  

In 2008, there are 560 merit-based scholarships from more than 110 providers (mostly colleges and universities).  Scholarships are approaching $10 million a year.  “This organization provides universities like Kettering the international exposure it needs to attract some of the world’s best science and engineering students.  Scholarship Row at the championship games gives Kettering ready access to international teams that we would never have exposure to before," Nichols explained.  "Teams from Brazil and Israel came to our scholarship table during the event and filled out inquiry cards with their names and addresses.  We have access to quality students around the world now, thanks to FIRST," he added.

Kettering awarded 10 $22,500 scholarships (for 4 ½ years of study) to the following 2008 FIRST Scholars:

  • Andrew Breed, Tech Fusion (Team 279) of Toledo, Ohio;
  • Jonathan Bushkuhl, the Rat Pack (Team 830) of Ann Arbor, Mich.;
  • Bryan Coburn, the Dragons (Team 1243) of Swartz Creek, Mich.;
  • William Hancock, Mech Warriors (Team 573) of Ortonville, Mich.; 
  • John Lawniczak, GRR (Team 340) of Rochester, N.Y.;
  • Nathan LeBlanc, PhyXTGears (Team 1720) of Muncie, Ind.;
  • Ryan Masica, the Enginerds (Team 2337) of Grand Blanc, Mich.;
  • Troy Russell, the GRAYT Leviathons (Team 1322) of Holly, Mich.;
  • Steven Zimnie, the Hammerheads (Team 226) of Troy, Mich.
  • Michael Pogue, The Gearheads (Team 1189) of Grosse Pointe, Mich.


Kettering activities began on Wednesday, with an alumni gathering in Buckhead, north of Atlanta.  The event was organized by Sue Weiss, senior Planned Giving officer, and hosted by Brian Ulanch ’04, who lives in Atlanta.  Brian, who is a former student body president, is a sales engineer for Intelligrated in Alpharetta, Ga.  Brian and his friend, Melissa Brouillard, greeted the 20 people who gathered at a trendy Southwestern restaurant called Nava.  Among the guests at the reception was J. Scott Mullennix ’79, who is the central engineering manager at GM’s Doraville plant.

Brian, Scott and others were very pleased to see Joan and Henry “Doc K” Kowalski, professor of Mechanical Engineering, who also attended.  Doc K and Erin Spinner ’05 had a nice visit.  Erin, who was one of the Kettering’s first LITE mentors, is now a Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory universities.


Thursday morning events opened at FIRST Nationals with healthy, energetic crowds in Scholarship Row! Kettering's give-away prizes at the scholarship table were so popular (and so FIRST!) that new records were set by Kettering for the number of names and addresses collected on perspective students.  This year's two-tier give-way promotion was a smash!  Almost a riot!

Perspective students were given a Rubik’s Cube puzzle pen that featured a Kettering message ( in exchange for their name and address.  Those who solved the color-coded puzzle and returned it Kettering's scholarship table were then given one of the ever-popular black T-shirts with the edgy phrase "Leftover parts are just proof you built it better."

The promotional plan was a hit.  Kettering workers were collecting completed inquiry cards at a pace of three per minute (for hours!).  The stockpile of 1,000 Rubik’s Cube puzzle pens were distributed in less than five hours and the 400 black t-shirts were gone in less than four hours.  Working the table for the popular contest were “Doc K" Kowalski; his wife, Joan; student Monica Denis of Clarkston; Debbie Rumsey of Admissions and her husband, Lyn; Wyn Wilson of Corporate Relations; Stephanie Jones of the Multicultural Office, Pat Mroczek of PR & Communications and Bob Nichols.  A steady flow of inquiry cards rolled in after the successful give-away ended, too.  A large box of inquiry cards was brought to campus to be entered into the recruiting database.


Saturday brought national finals.  The national champions are a three-team alliance that includes long-time Kettering Kickoff friends, the Thunderchickens, Team 217, from Sterling Heights/Utica.  The Thunderchickens have been in the Kettering Kickoff many times!  They shared the national title with Canada's Team 1114 (a GM team from St. Catharines) and Team 148 (a RackSolutions team from Greenville, Texas).  To see more award winners, visit the FIRST website at:


Parents are increasingly important in the college decision and in FIRST’s ongoing success. Kettering “Dad” Rick Arnold, whose son Chris is a sophomore at Kettering studying Mechanical Engineering, was among the thousands of parents who supported the multitude of activities at the FIRST championship games.  Rick and his wife, Debbie, live in Pontiac, where Chris graduated from Pontiac Central High School.  Rick was at FIRST supporting Chief Delphi (Team 47) from Pontiac Central.

Rick said he has become a strong advocate for Kettering’s style of education through co-op experiences.  “Kettering is a unique place of higher learning.  Where else do you find offset semesters, small class sizes, this kind of scholarship funding and co-op jobs in corporate businesses that help offset additional costs.  Add in Kettering’s impeccable reputation and the potential influence of a Kettering degree in the job market, and you can see why I encourage others to explore this opportunity.  My student goes to Kettering, so I know these things to be true.”


NOT ENOUGH GIRLS: As FIRST approaches two decades of service, officials are still displeased with the small number of girls participating in activities.  Who would you turn to in order to fix that problem?  How about: Girl Scouts of the USA!!  GSUSA has partnered with FIRST to increase the flow of female participants into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiatives.  And why not?  GSUSA introduced Electrician and Flyer badges in 1913 and today more than 60 percent of its badge sales relate to STEM.  The partnership has already begun with FIRST LEGO League for grades 4-9 through programs, camps and robot fun.


The Kettering Kickoff planted an admissions seed in the Griffithfamily of Pendleton, S.C., many years ago.  Donn Griffith was a mentor for the South Carolinarobotics team that visited campus early in the decade.  Donn took his whole team on a tour of campus while they were visiting.  Years later, when his own son started looking for colleges, the memory of that campus tour stayed active with the family.  "We looked at WPI, the University of Miami, the Coast Guard Academy, Purdue and Kettering when we started college shopping," Donn said.  "Between the uniqueness of the Kettering program, Prep For Success and the scholarship offers -- my son decided to come here."  Michael Griffith is now a freshman and thoroughly enjoying his co-op with Becton Dickinson in Connecticut.  "Michael was offered a co-op before he was even a college student," Donn said.  "My freshman son is verifying molds to create new parts for Becton Dickinson.  You know that Becton Dickinson only offers co-ops to Kettering students, right?" the proud father exclaimed.  Donn Griffith is the outreach, retention and recruitment director at the University of South Carolina.


Kettering’s next FIRST event is Saturday, Sept. 20, for the Ninth Annual Kettering Kickoff.  See coverage from former Kettering Kickoff contests at:


And remember, being a nerd is cool.  Proof at:  Because if you’re not FIRST, you’re last!

Written by Pat Mroczek
(810) 762-9533