When Nick Ruzek was in high school, he joined the robotics team, which created a love of STEM projects, camaraderie and mentoring. That experience led Ruzek, a paramedic/firefighter by trade, to volunteer with Lakeshore FIRST Robotics.
The volunteer-led Manitowoc nonprofit organization helps teach youth about robotics and STEM concepts. Now considered a statewide model, Lakeshore FIRST Robotics has won several awards, including its president Arrow Guetschow receiving the 2018 WPS Partner in Education Award and the group winning an Insight Innovation Award in the People category.
“Because our program has different robotics programs … getting a community-based award does give us more visibility,” says Ruzek, the organization’s vice president.
When the group began in 2009, Manitowoc County was devoid of any robotics teams. Today, it has 40 teams and serves about 450 students, says Ruzek, adding that it creates a STEM-friendly education culture in the community.
As a countywide program, several locations host teams — most meet in schools — and Lakeshore FIRST Robotics is now in the process of renovating an industrial building in Manitowoc “to create a facility to be a central hub,” Ruzek says. The organization plans to lease the facility at a low cost.
Ruzek says the program is considering moving into Brown County, which has few robotics teams.
Donors make Lakeshore FIRST Robotics possible, Ruzek says. The club does not charge a registration fee and donors provide equipment. Students who make it to higher-level competitions do need to cover their own travel expenses.
While finding students to join Lakeshore FIRST Robotics is easy, finding adult mentors is much more challenging.
“It’s always tough, but once they get involved, they realize it’s not as scary as they think,” Ruzek says. “We do a pretty good job retaining volunteers. It’s fascinating to watch the parents. They are hesitant to help because they might not know what to do, but they are growing as well.”
While adults are present to provide guidance, the sessions are completely student led.
“We’re really proud of that,” Ruzek says. “They’re free to solve the problem on their own.”
Lakeshore teams compete in an international program called FIRST Robotics where they follow specific guidelines and spend six to eight weeks building robots before competing against other teams.
“We’re very proud that so many of our teams have gone to high levels,” Ruzek says. “One of the most exciting things is going to a world championship in Detroit or St. Louis and you’ve got teams from completely different countries. You can bond over a similar experience.”
Students from ages 6 to 18 can participate in the program. The program offers different levels for different age groups, with the youngest starting with Junior FIRST Lego League and the oldest participating in FIRST Robotics competitions.
“It’s fascinating to see how ready they are to receive the information. It’s obviously helpful to have the young age levels. You also find there’s a lot of growth from the top down; it’s very exciting for the little kids,” Ruzek says.
As with other areas of technology, boys outnumber girls, but Ruzek says Lakeshore FIRST Robotics is seeking ways to close the gap.
“We’re always trying to come up with new ways to develop that,” he says. “We’re working to develop good female role models.”