RoboZone TV shows how robotics combines the best of varsity sports and STEM education

The multi-time Emmy Award-winning State Champs! Sports Network has produced professional, high-quality high school sports programming for Southeast Michigan for 15 years now, but high school sports isn’t their only game.

Their fourth season of RoboZone TV just started, the only TV series dedicated to high school robotics in the country. It airs on Fox Sports Detroit on Sunday mornings at 9:30am, right after State Champs! at 9am.

“It started as a show on CW 50 then graduated to Fox Sports Detroit once we were able to convince them that robotics is a sport and people will watch it,” laughs Lorne Plant, host and producer for State Champs! Sports Network. 

He says the idea for RoboZone came up about five years ago when he started hearing about this high school robotics league that was getting a lot of chatter on Twitter in the spring, a time of year when all the winter sports the network usually covers are over. He decided to send a reporter, producer, and camera guy to cover the three-day robotics state championships at Eastern Michigan University just to see what they came up with and how it played.

The small crew came back raving – there were so many people there to watch these kids controlling these robots and playing these robot games like video games. So they decided to make a 30-minute documentary on the birth and growth of robotics in Michigan and talked to some of the companies involved in robotics. The show won a Michigan Emmy and caught the attention of FIRST in Michigan, the organization that runs the state’s largest robotics league. They started talking with FIRST about producing a show – much like how the network’s State Champs! was the SportsCenter of high school sports, they also wanted to be the SportsCenter of robotics.

They began filming robotics competition events throughout the state and producing high-energy recaps of the various events in one weekly 30-minute show called RoboZone TV. They film the competitions, discuss the scoring, and interview the kids about their robots as well as their mentors from companies like Ford, Dow, and DTE – people who studied robotics in high school and are trying to train their next workforce.

FIRST was created by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, with the vision of inspiring young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators. The FIRST robotics competition combines the excitement of varsity sports with hands-on STEM training that gets kids excited about pursuing careers in technology and engineering. The competition starts with a kick-off event in December or January where the year’s game theme is announced – this year’s is a 1980s video game/arcade theme (no doubt tying into the much-anticipated release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One), while previous years included a Wellsian steampunk theme and a “capture the flag”-style theme. The kick-off event is followed by a six-week “build season,” and then the six weeks of competition begin.

Plant says that one of the most exciting things to see at these competitions is the range of kids learning to work together cooperatively, from the kids who excel and handiwork and building who create the robots to the kids who are the programmers and coders who program the robots, and the kids who understand the electrical end of things and make sure everything works to the gamers who excel at game play and strategy who pilot the robots.

“All these kids have to work together to be successful,” Plant says. “I’m just blown away by it.”

RoboZone TV covers the full competition season for six weeks over March and April. Each week there are 4-5 competitions held in Michigan, each with about 40 teams participating. The show has cameras set up at each of the events, highlighting a primary “event of the week” (what they feel will be the most exciting match-up) and including recaps of all the other events which are held all over the state, even in the UP.

After the district competitions come the state and North American world championships. Plant says the state of Michigan has more world champion teams than any other state in the country, and more teams total – there are over 500 robotics teams in Michigan. In fact, for the next three years Detroit will host the world championships at Cobo Hall and Ford Field. (Anecdotally, he also thinks that Oakland County is probably the number one county in the state for robotics.) 

Part of the reason the growth of robotics has been so explosive is because the state of Michigan has really invested in STEM education, and robotics is a part of that. There is a huge need for high-skilled workers in STEM fields, especially in a state like Michigan where there is so much advanced manufacturing, but the talent pipeline has been worrisome. With the State providing dedicated resources to STEM education, there has been an increased focus on these fields and ensuring that the workforce of tomorrow receives the education and training they need today.

That has also included additional efforts to get young girls involved in STEM fields, which might otherwise be seen as “boys’ subjects” and “too intimidating” for girls. Plant says that he is seeing a huge number of girls involved now and taking leadership roles, and imagines there will be a significant influx of women engineers in the future.

“There is a great job market for the kids coming out of this learning these skills,” he says. “Our office is on the Lawrence Technological University campus, so we see it here. There are going to be more tech jobs in the future so the more [programs like these] can do to make it fun, the better. It really blows me away; it really is a sport. These kids who do it really do love it. For a lot of them they don’t really have a creative outlet. It really allows them to let their freak flags fly; they can be as dorky or awkward as they want.”