Chelsea Robotics: Where Robots Build Kids


(L-R) Jeffrey Dunn (11th), Connor Zatkovich (11th), Mason Nead (12th), Logan Dever (12th), Hannah Lesser (9th), Wynne Van Hoek (11th), Amelia Fulton (9th), Lily VanHevel (11th), Sophie Getty (9th)

At Chelsea High School, the robotics program motto is "Kids don’t build Robots. Robots build kids." Weird, but very cool.

This unique perspective on education and skill development has proven successful in preparing students for their future careers and fostering camaraderie and character-building through problem-solving, competition, and adversity.

Members of the robotics team, Technical Difficulties, recently gave a tour of its facility to the Chelsea Chamber of Commerce Board. The Chelsea Robotics Center is located on Chelsea’s Washington St. educational campus. The visit was impressive.

The Chelsea Robotics Center is located in Chelsea's Washington St. educational complex. Photo:

Technical Difficulties participates in the FIRST Robotics program, which introduces new criteria for its competitions each year. Once the parameters are announced at the beginning of January, teams only have seven weeks to figure out the new rules and build a robot to navigate the obstacles in the crowded, competitive field.

Junior Wynne Van Hoek describes the initial flurry of activity: “You’re finding ways to innovate and to adapt constantly. Some things carry over between years, but the big emphasis is on working through the engineering design process efficiently because our build season is so short.”

Members of Technical Difficulties explain the program to the Chelsea Chamber Board in the planning room of the Chelsea Robotics Center.

According to Van Hoek, participating in the robotics program has been an invaluable experience for team members, teaching students real-world skills such as innovation, engineering, communication, and teamwork.

“In my opinion, this is one of the best extracurriculars in Chelsea,” said Van Hoek. “It is something that allows students to learn how to innovate, be engineers, be better communicators, and work as a team. It teaches us real-world skills.”

The Chelsea Robotics Center workshop has just about everything needed to manufacture a robot from raw material, include several 3D printers which the team uses for their innovative and award-winning designs.

These skills, Van Hoek explained, are directly transferable to today's workforce, with students learning to use manufacturing machines, CAD programs and how to function efficiently within a team. Chelsea’s robotics community comprises around 120 kindergarten through 12th-grade students, supported by over 50 volunteer mentors. Now in its 14th year, the program has expanded to include mentorship between older and younger students, with participation open to any interested student no experience necessary. Students from all grade levels compete in FIRST competitions, with seasons staggered throughout the school year.

Founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics is a non-profit organization that aims to inspire young people to pursue education and careers in STEM. With thousands of teams worldwide, Michigan leads the United States with 479 high school FIRST teams. The competitions are designed to challenge students' problem-solving abilities, teamwork, and communication skills while providing them with a fun and engaging experience.

Senior Logan Dever holds up a robotic arm designed for a former robot. Former parts cannot be reused. The base of the arm is the innovative design which won Technical Difficulties the award.

A unique aspect of FIRST competitions is that opposing teams are allied. But, an alliance you had one week might be your opponent the next and vice versa.

Senior Logan Dever, who has been in the robotics program for seven years, explains this unique aspect of FIRST competition: “So, a part of it is being able to work with others that you may not know. We compete at several events with the teams coming to the center. We all learn how each other works, how to interact with other robots, and how to work together.”

2022 combatant “Keiith.” Technical Difficulties went to State and Worlds with Keiith and won the Industrial Design Award sponsored by General Motors at Worlds.

Van Hoek adds, “It’s the idea that you are competing, but you cannot win without others. You must work with two other teams randomly selected at every match. It’s this constant cycle of having this sense of gracious professionalism toward opponents and people you do not know.”

Van Hoek described one example of this gracious professionalism: Chelsea's team took an inexperienced team under their wing at the Saline competition, fortifying their robot and preparing them for the event despite being competitors.

Van Hoek recalls the incident: “Technically, they’re our competition. But the spirit of FIRST really inspires everyone to help others genuinely.”

Meet “Goose” recently retired from the 2023 season. For this year’s competition, Goose had to balance on the charging station and then score by handling cones and cubes. Technical Difficulties won the District Engineering Inspiration Award in the Saline Qualifier. Photo by Sid Little.

Chelsea’s high school team has 46 members; anyone who wants to join can find a place, regardless of their technical expertise. The team is divided into subcommittees, such as promotion and marketing, which may not involve engineering or coding but still play an essential role in the team's success. This inclusiveness ensures that everyone has a role to play and contributes to the team's achievements. Over and over throughout the tour, team members expressed their enthusiasm about being part of the team and the program.

Technical Difficulties' proficiency in CAD has allowed them to design and manufacture many of their parts, often creating a buzz of envy among teams at competitions. The team has been awarded for their ingenuity and design.

The Chelsea Robotics team is also supported by mentors and businesses that provide technical and financial assistance. These partnerships have also opened up internship opportunities for students, giving them valuable real-world experience.

The Chamber was treated to a demonstration of Goose going through his moves.

“Another benefit our students get are internships,” said Van Hoek. “Within FIRST, there is a high demand for bright, young engineers to intern at these companies. Companies see what we’re doing and want it brought into their business. It’s a pretty good pipeline.”

At competitions, teams are often seen helping each other when things go wrong. Technical Difficulties will often help other groups who may need a part for repair or additional support. This esprit de corps is evident throughout the FIRST universe. A team lost their driver a few years ago at a FIRST competition at Lincoln High School. Another team provided a driver for them, who then took the controls to compete against his own team.

The Chelsea High School robotics program demonstrates the powerful impact of combining STEM education with character development and real-world skills. By embracing the motto "robots build kids," the program is shaping the lives of its participants, preparing them for future success, and instilling in them a lifelong love of learning and innovation.

For more information about the Chelsea Robotics program, visit

Unless otherwise noted, photos by Doug Marrin

I'm interested
I disagree with this
This is unverified