YPSILANTI, Mich. - Jam-packed in a muggy, brightly lit gymnasium, the middle school and high school teams scurried to add the finishing touches to their metallic babies.
The students were building robots for the Great Lakes Regional competition, one of seven nationally. The 'robo-gladiators' had to be high tech. They earned points by capturing and raising pillowlike objects called 'floppies' and moving and climbing on top of a tall platform called a 'puck.'
It is all part of a science and engineering program called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). But it is not just about scoring the most points or winning awards, say automakers and auto suppliers that sponsor teams.
For companies like Delphi Automotive Systems Corp., the FIRST competition may provide more young engineers to fill their product development labs.
'The average engineer is about 50 years old,' said Ronald Beeber, director of government relations for Delphi Automotive Systems. 'We have to replenish those folks. This will be a challenge. Engineers are in high demand right now.'
Delphi is sponsoring five high schools this year. The company, along with General Motors, handed out $500,000 to help FIRST. Delphi Chairman J.T. Battenberg III is a director of FIRST, as is Francois Castaing, a former Chrysler Corp. engineering chief and president of Castaing & Associates Inc.
Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler also sponsor teams, as do many automotive suppliers, including Visteon Automotive Systems, Johnson Controls Inc., Siemens Automotive Corp. TRW Inc. and Textron Automotive Co.
As automakers turn to suppliers to create systems of parts, suppliers need more engineers. That makes competitions like FIRST critical, Beeber said. The programs not only groom youngsters for engineering careers, the sponsors' names just might ring bells when FIRST alums are looking for jobs.
'This will pay dividends down the road,' Beeber said. 'When these students finish college they will think, 'Hey, I worked with Delphi in high school. I learned a lot.' Hopefully the end result will be that they will come back to us.'
Myder Ly, a former FIRST participant and a freshman at Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Mich., thought she was headed toward a career in business finance. Then FIRST opened her eyes to the engineering world.
'At first, engineering seemed so broad. It was hard to narrow it down,' said Ly, who was a member of 'Chief Delphi,' a Delphi-sponsored team at Pontiac (Mich.) Central High School. 'Now, I'm pursuing a career in mechanical engineering. FIRST showed me the process behind engineering and that it isn't so difficult.'
And that's precisely what Chief Delphi coach Joseph Johnson has in mind. The Delphi engineer wants to show students that engineering is just as intriguing as sports and, more important, attainable.
'There's almost zero chance that we will see another Michael Jordan,' said Johnson, who has been working with Pontiac Central's Chief Delphi team for about four years. 'I want young people to say, 'I want to be the next Joseph Johnson,' or any hero in engineering. Engineering is a respectable field that pays well. Students need to know this.'
The Chief Delphi team and the others had only six weeks to design a remote-controlled robot, put it together and test it. In a two minute-match, the teams earned points by having the robots pick up and raise floppies and by having them move and climb on top of the puck.
Chief Delphi's efforts didn't go unnoticed.
At the competition, which involved 59 teams, Chief Delphi made it to the championship round but was not among the three Great Lakes winners. Still, Team Delphi will compete for the national championship this week, April 22-24, at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.