FIRST Robotics of Michigan recently caught up with Dr. Elmer Lee for an interview. We wanted to share some of Dr. Lee’s thoughts, involvement in FIRST Robotics, and his commitment to mentoring the young minds involved with STEM. Here are some of the highlights:
Q: WHAT IS INNOVATE ALBION?
INNOVATE Albion is a STEM education hub that focuses on teaching engineering through hands-on learning. We are sponsored by Caster Concepts and Conceptual Innovations based here in Albion. With the support of FIRST in Michigan, we also received a generous grant from the Argosy Foundation that provided the seed funding to purchase our computer workstations and machine shop equipment.
The idea behind all of this started about eight years ago. We found that the engineers we were hiring weren’t from our neck of the woods. These engineers stayed for a couple of years and then left for bigger venues in Detroit and Chicago. We consciously chose to mentor FIRST teams by searching for and building talent in the community. We support students through high school and college and eventually find them a position here in Albion.
“We go beyond the math and the formula and help students connect with technology and really become passionate about a career in engineering. This is a space where failure is celebrated as a gateway to learning.”
-Dr. Elmer Lee
Q: WHAT IS YOUR SUSTAINABILITY MODEL AT INNOVATE ALBION?
When we started INNOVATE Albion, we knew we couldn’t rely on grant funding. So I had an idea, calling it a pipe dream, to hire interns to help us develop technology to turn into products and sell.
Here’s a great example. In 2018, when I was four years into mentoring the Concord Robotics program, I asked the kids to develop a traction differential swerve drive. That led to our Swerve Mobile, which I showed a Boeing engineer. He asked if that technology could be used to develop an Omni-Directional Drive System that could carry 10,000 lbs. Fast forward six months, and Boeing is using one of our Omni-Directional Drive Systems to help them manufacture planes. I have six more projects based on this technology used in aerospace, military production, and scientific research companies.
What’s awesome is that the same interns who helped create the Swerve mobile are also the ones who came back to help assemble and test our Omni-Drive Directional product. It proves that their learned skills are directly translatable to the real world.
Q: Where do all these ideas come from?
We are fortunate that Conceptual Innovations and Caster Concepts recognize that innovation has no limits. So, interns work on projects that they are passionate about. One of our interns is developing a pizza bot to send the bot down the block to pick up his pizza for lunch. All these technologies we use in FIRST do a good job of training these students to develop their skills. We teach CAD programming and use those skills to teach more capable project skills. It’s not just about the formula or the math. It’s just as much about tangible applications.
Q: HOW DO YOU GET AN INTERNSHIP AT INNOVATE ALBION?
The first step for any student interested in getting an internship is to join FIRST Robotics. My mentoring first robotics is the best interviewing process I could ever create. I work with many teens in the Jackson area and have gotten to know a lot of kids in various high schools. What FIRST teaches is programming, CAD, mech design, and electrical design, as well as hard work and dedication. We look for all the things interns bring to these projects.