Participating in FIRST Robotics teams is more than just a fun after-school activity for Macomb County kids. It’s also preparing them early for next-generation careers in mobility and many other fields.

That’s the basic idea behind the Macomb County Robotics Innovation and Collaboration Center, which soft-launched in January at Velocity in Sterling Heights. The nonprofit center aims to offer shared robotics resources and programming for county students of all ages. It’s a partnership between the county, Macomb Community College, and the Macomb Intermediate School District.

Vicky Rad, director of Macomb County Planning and Economic Development, says the idea for the center originated about three years ago when the county was considering ways to diversify its mix of industries. A study the county commissioned indicated that strengthening the county’s robotics talent pipeline would serve numerous industries well.

“The greatest need right now is the talent,” Rad says. “It’s finding that next generation of the workforce, because as augmented reality and virtual reality and artificial intelligence enters into this space of a smart factory, your workforce needs to quickly adapt to those challenges.”

The Robotics Innovation and Collaboration Center aims to help students cultivate the skills to respond to those challenges. The center’s early focus has been on providing resources for the county’s 24 FIRST Robotics teams, which have begun meeting every Monday evening at the center to collaborate. Rad describes the center as “neutral territory” for the teams, which can often be competitive under normal circumstances.

“They can learn from each other, learn some best practices, and just know they’ve got a team next door that’s willing to help,” she says. “There’s this sharing happening: sharing of knowledge, sharing of tools, sharing of space.”

The teams have already formed a student-run alliance to guide their collaboration.

“We really wanted the students to take more of a leadership role in creating that environment,” Rad says. “Their goal is that no rookie [team] fails.”

Communication and collaboration among teams is only the beginning, though. The center’s board is currently in the process of raising funds to create more tangible shared resources for the teams, such as a fabrication lab (including a 3-D printer) and a practice field. Given space concerns, the latter would be located at a site other than Velocity.

Rad also envisions opportunities to bring in partners from the local business community to hold workshops for the students on topics including coding and using CAD software. The center has already forged fruitful partnerships with multiple local businesses, and there are ample opportunities for businesses to contribute mentorship, money, or materials to the center. Rad says those business partnerships present a great opportunity both for students to learn valuable skills and for businesses to recruit future employees.

Rad says FIRST Robotics is “the big elephant in the room” and the center’s main focus from January through April, but the center’s board wants it to be useful to area students year-round.

“Maybe during the summer months we could have some STEM programming with some of the K-3, K-5, or middle school groups so there’s an opportunity for them to learn some of the featured technologies that are needed for these jobs in the next century,” she says.

Rad notes that the jobs being created as a result of the rapidly changing mobility industry “don’t have a job title today.” But she sees it as her responsibility to make sure Macomb County’s young people are prepared to excel in those jobs without even leaving home.

“I’ve got a big goal as I’m talking to these students,” Rad says. “I’m saying, ‘Please know, if you go off to college, your job is waiting for you here in Macomb County. And I’m hoping that while they’re here, during their high school experience, they really get to see the technology that’s happening across the board throughout our industries.”