Detroit — Nine years ago, Samia Rahman and her classmates from the all-girls Detroit International Academy demonstrated the robot they built through the FIRST robotics program to DTE Energy employees during their lunch hour at the energy company's downtown offices.
As captain of the robotics team, Rahman had to stand before the DTE employees and explain how they built the machine — and make a business case to the company that financially sponsored her team, the Pink Panthers.
After the demonstration, a DTE manager approached the team's mentor and inquired about Rahman and whether she would be interested in a summer internship.
"We had business cards, of course, being a high school student," said Rahman, who handed the DTE manager her contact information.
Rahman has been in and around DTE ever since, interning at the company throughout college and becoming a full-time operational analyst after getting an engineering degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Her exposure to one of Detroit's largest employers came solely through FIRST Robotics, a 30-year-old organization that has turned robot-building into a team sport in high schools across Michigan.
FIRST — which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is bringing its world championship competition to Detroit on April 26 for a four-day gathering of more than 35,000 students, parents and team coaches at Ford Field and Cobo Center. The event and spotlight on Detroit underscores the growing popularity of an extracurricular activity seen by many potential employers as a critical way to expose students to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Beyond contraptions that pick up and move blocks and other objects in competitions, the robotics program has created a pipeline of young talent that companies like DTE, General Motors Co. and auto supplier Magna International Inc. have been tapping in recent years for engineering, problem-solving, teamwork and communications skills.
"It's kind of like a business within itself where you're working with your own team, like a company, and you have to market it … get the funding you need to build the robot as robust as it must be," said Rahman, who now mentors a robotics team through the Hope Center in Detroit.
Businesses that have sponsored the robotics teams over the years are not just doing it for charity.
The recruiters at some longtime business sponsors have added a question to their job applications asking if the prospective employee participated in FIRST Robotics in high school or not, said Donald Bossi, president of Manchester, NH-based FIRST.
Because of the trials and tribulations students tackle while trying to build a machine, the experience is viewed by employers as similar to critical thinking and problem-solving challenges they'll face in the workforce, Bossi said.
"It really, really gives them a leg up," Bossi said in an interview.
From 'Little League' to GM