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Brandon:Truck Town Thunder Robotics

October 30, 2013 - Brandon Twp.-In response to a world increasingly focused on science and technology, the school district is expanding learning opportunities in this area of study for younger children.

The Truck Town Thunder Youth Robotics Program began accepting students as young as second grade this year and now has 24 teams, with about 200 students overall, spread over both elementary schools, the intermediate school, middle school and high school. In the works is a plan to incorporate the program all the way to Kindergarten so students in every grade can participate in the program that is part of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Academy.

"It's a pretty powerful program— we create leaders," said Andrew Spiece, team leader. "These are 21st century skills, the kids learn real world applications of mathematics, science and technology. They compete and learn the grace of professionalism and good sportsmanship. It gives a place for the students who are intellectually gifted or inclined."

Students in the Truck Town Thunder program work together weekly during the school year on projects that vary accord ing to grade level with an eye on competing against other teams in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics League. According to trucktownthunder.com, FIRST is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization founded more than 20 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen and is devoted to helping young people discover and develop a passion for science, engineering, technology and math.

Brandon launched both the STEM Academy and its own robotics team in 2009. The Truck Town Thunder website notes that in 2009-2010, FIRST had more than 210,000 youth participants and more than 90,000 mentors, coaches and volunteers from 56 countries. Each season's annual programs culminate in an international robotics competition.

The Jr. FIRST Lego League, for second and third grade students, meets once a week on Tuesdays, from 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m. Spiece notes this year's theme is "Disaster Blaster," in which they learn about natural disasters and build a Lego creation.

"They come up with a research project— it's a science fair with Legos," explains Spiece.

FIRST Lego League is for fourth-sixth grade students and FIRST Tech Challenge is for middle school students. Besides competing in the FIRST Robotics League, high school students also can compete in the Oakland County Competitive Robotics Association and both high school and middle school student teams can compete in the VEX Robotics competition.

The programs include not only Brandon students, but also homeschooled students, and pupils from surrounding districts. The program is supported through fundraisers, sponsorships and partnerships in the community. Each child in the program pays a participation fee that depends on age, but fundraising and sponsorships help lessen the burden of travel costs for students, materials, league registrations, and operational costs. Sponsors include GM, Continental Automotive Group, VARTech, Thompson's Hardware, the U.S. Air Force, Cenit North America, and Tool Sport and Sign.

Spiece said he has kept statistics since Brandon launched its robotics program in 2009 and since that time, 100 percent of Truck Town Thunder robotics seniors have graduated, with all receiving some type of academic scholarship, and in all, $750,000 in academic scholarships have been given to these robotics participants.

"We are getting to point where seniors from four years ago are running programs," said Spiece. "Older students are helping the younger, and running, organizing, and planning. It's this progression— when my students graduate from high school, no matter what job they get, I want them to be the boss. I want them to be able to talk in front of a group of people and be the leader in that organization."

For more information on the FIRST programs or to become a sponsor, contact Andrew Spiece at 248-627-1820, ext. 1141 or visit trucktownthunder.com.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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