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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Saint Mary’s student mentors local robotics team

Saint Mary’s first year Michelle Lester uses her robotics skills to help young people in the South Bend community.

Lester mentors two youth robotics teams in the area: a FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) league team, and a team at the South Bend Career Academy, which is part of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) league. She said the FTC league team is composed of four middle- and high-school-aged students, while the FRC league team comprises students from the 9th to 12th grades.

Lester said she initially became interested in robotics in high school. At first, she only went to a robotics meeting to support a friend who was involved, but then fell in love with the activity herself. She said she learned a lot about robotics in high school, including how to build robots, program them and even create business plans.

The Michigan native wasted no time getting involved with robotics when she came to Saint Mary’s. She started the FTC league team, which attracts students from different schools in the area. Lester said her FTC league team designs and builds 60-pound robots at the Granger Exploration and Robotics Studio (GEARS). 

Lester’s FRC-league team, on the other hand, builds 80-pound robots that are more expensive than their FTC counterparts, she said.

“They’re basically the same, but FTC is more for kids that cannot afford FRC,” Lester said. “I actually think kids get more out of FTC, because they have to keep an engineering notebook. It’s basically everything they do, documented, with explanations as to why and how they did. It’s a great way for them to learn more.”

Lester said the FTC team has won two out of their three competitions so far.

Mentoring robotics teams, Lester said, is a lot of work. She said she is with her teams for four hours a day on weekdays and up to 12 hours a day on weekends.

Lester said one of her students stands out for being particularly hard-working.

“She’s the youngest kid we have on our team, but she’s also the most impressive,” Lester said of the student. “She’s always doing what we ask of her, but better than we could ever expect. She’s an incredible little girl.”

Lester said she joined MichianaFIRST — a coalition of robotics teams in the Michiana area — to support and learn from each other. She said she attended a dinner in May for current Michiana mentors to network and get involved. During this dinner, she met David Ebersol, head coach of the South Bend Career Academy FRC team.

“He was really impressed and touched by my experience with [robotics] teams, so he asked me to come help his team with scouting and marketing, and the rest is history,” Lester said.