Gov. Rick Snyder helps Kettering University open FIRST Robotics Community Center

This is really the only year-round FIRST arena that we know of in the country. It’s great to see Kettering taking the lead.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s reaction to seeing the FIRST Robotics Community Center at Kettering University could be summed up in a few words -- “To put it simply, this is awesome,” Snyder said.

Snyder was among several dignitaries, including Don Bossi, president of FIRST Robotics, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and Jennifer Liversedge of the C.S. Mott Foundation, who participated in a special ribbon cutting ceremony with hundreds of students, faculty, staff and community members commemorating the opening of the facility -- the first of its kind on any university campus in the country -- on Sept. 19. Harrison Ford, a junior majoring in Mechanical Engineering at Kettering and a mentor for the Flint F.I.R.E. FIRST team (one of eight expected to be housed in the facility), also spoke about the impact the FIRST Community Center will potentially have on area students.

“This is truly an exciting day in the history of Kettering University,” said Dr. Robert K. McMahan, Kettering University president. “It’s the launching of a facility that we think will have a profound and lasting impact on the community. It was created to inspire young men and women, regardless of socio-economic background, to dream of their future and then make those dreams real through science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

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Gov. Rick Snyder (left) visited and spoke at the FIRST Robotics Community Center at Kettering University on Sept. 19.

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Students on Metal Muscle, a Kettering University-sponsored FIRST team, built a special robot equipped with scissors to handle the ceremonial ribbon cutting.

“Our goal in Michigan is to be first in FIRST, and I’m proud to say we are,” Snyder said. “This is really the only year-round FIRST arena that we know of in the country. It’s great to see Kettering taking the lead.”

The facility provides work areas for approximately eight FIRST teams, a regulation size practice field as well as a lab that will include machining tools and software. More importantly, the students on these teams will have unprecedented access to Kettering University’s faculty, staff and students as mentors and the campus facilities.

“This facility will allow Kettering to offer a truly immersive experience for the teams from the community who are housed here,” McMahan said. “The students on these teams will have a year-round home on our campus. More importantly, this will give more schools in the area the opportunity to start FIRST programs.”

FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- was founded by Dean Kamen in 1989 as a way for kids to sharpen skills and learn about career paths in science, technology and engineering fields. The competition-based program also fosters teamwork and communication skills and connects students with mentors working in industry and education. FIRST has a tremendous track record for preparing its participants for outstanding academic and professional careers.

Kettering has sponsored the Metal Muscle team for 10 years. Metal Muscle -- which will be one of the eight teams housed in the FIRST Community Center -- is unique in that it is not associated with a high school. It is composed of students from a wide variety of backgrounds and schools, including home schooled and private school students and students from underserved or small districts in the Flint area and in Oakland County.

Metal Muscle’s presence on campus also allows Kettering to work with students on a variety of academic endeavors, including ACT preparation. All participants are given the ACT when joining the team. From their scores, mentors are able to determine subject areas where the students need improvement and they receive tutoring as part of their participation in the program.

“Metal Muscle has been incredibly successful,” McMahan said. “Nearly 100 percent of students who have been on the team -- many of whom joined with no college aspirations -- have gone on to pursue a college education after high school. Having them on our campus, working with Kettering faculty and students, and getting exposure to the career possibilities a college education offers is life-changing for many of these students. The FIRST Community Center will allow us to offer these opportunities to significantly more students each year.”

FIRST teams associated with Flint Community Schools and Powers Catholic High School are also committed to use the facility.

The FIRST Community Center will be housed in what was formerly a gymnasium in the Academic Building. The gym had been closed and used for storage since 1995. Dr. Henry Kowalski, Kettering University professor of Mechanical Engineering and the faculty mentor for the Metal Muscle team who is celebrating his 50th year at Kettering, has long eyed the gym as an opportunity to offer a space for FIRST Robotics.

“This is going to be a great use of the old gym’s space,” Kowalski said. “These kids need access to a modern machine shop, design space and a practice field, and this will give them a chance to have a simulated field that really prepares them for their competitions.”

In addition to the machining and design areas and practice field, teams will have eight ‘bays’ or ‘cages’ to store their own equipment and work with their teammates. There will also be spaces for teams to work together, supporting the collaborative nature of FIRST competitions that often see teams working in alliances with opponents. The space will also allow Kettering the opportunity to eventually get more involved in the FIRST LEGO League, which is for elementary school students. The space will be infused with technology so that teams can use and plug in devices. A mezzanine observation area is also planned.

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Kettering student and FIRST mentor Harrison Ford and Dr. Henry 'Doc K' Kowalski embrace during the grand opening of the FIRST Robotics Community Center.

The facility was made possible as part of a $15.5 million commitment the C.S. Mott Foundation made to Kettering in 2012. It will not only allow Kettering to offer a new, vibrant space that benefits the community, it will also prepare students with in-demand STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills that will prepare them for both continuing education and the workforce. The Ford Motor Company Fund, the General Motors Foundation and Robert Bosch LLC are also among the supporters of the facility.

“It’s much more than just the space that is important,” McMahan said. “The key to FIRST is mentors. This facility will give area students unprecedented access to our campus and all it has to offer as well as our faculty, staff and students. It will serve as a tremendous opportunity to partner with the community and help prepare the next generations of students for college and impactful careers.”