Soccer player uses STEM grant for World Championship

July 25, 2017

Picture this: You’re a high school senior whose team just won a  semi-world championship. As one of the star players, you’re on your knees on the playing field, reveling in the victory, while balloons and confetti rain over you, music pumps over loud speakers, and a crowd of 40,000 wildly cheers your success. Does it get any better than this?

For OMK grant recipient Paul Kovacic, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, the answer is yes. It will get even better this weekend, when his robotics team, Stryke Force, plays its top competitor in Bedford, New Hampshire, home of famed inventor Dean Kamen. Among many achievements, Kamen invented the Segway and, in 1989, founded FIRST, the international high school robotics competition referred to as “the ultimate sport for the mind.”

FIRST (FRC) stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It is an annual competition for teams of 20 to 100 students, taking six weeks to build robots that compete in regional and national tournaments. Last year, its 25th, there were more than 3,000 teams with roughly 75,000 students and 19,000 mentors.

“It’s amazing. I’m getting goosebumps all over again,” said Paul’s mother, Myla Kovacic.

OMK Grant Recipient Paul Kovacic

As she breathlessly recounts Paul’s team experience over the last three years and  the recent win in St. Louis, you can’t help but feel her enthusiasm for the “sport” of robotics.

“Every year at world competition, the theme is different. New game, new rules,” she said.

Like playing some other sport — football or basketball — the robots are players (that the kids control) who must meet objectives using strategy and skill. They are  turning, shifting, climbing – racing to complete tasks on the championship field, called “Einstein,” ahead of the other robot team and before the bell rings. There are gears to pick up, to hang on a peg, to place in a puzzle at the top of the “castle.” There’s vacuuming and shooting. And lots of cheering.

Doug Staunton is one of the team’s four main mentors and Chief Engineer at Stryker Corporation, a Fortune 500 medical technologies company and team sponsor. He provided an engineering perspective when describing this year’s competition: “The game is always played on a 27-by-54-foot field. As our ‘human player,’ Paul stood behind a safety gate at one end of the field. At the other end, we had a driver and copilot  with remote controllers behind glass.

“The first 15 seconds of the game is autonomous with these 120-pound robots running on code and using preprogrammed actions. Then the human team members drive them around.”

According to Staunton, out of the roughly 30 team members who travelled to the games, some worked in “the pit,” where robots were serviced between matches. Others were running around collecting statistics on robots and looking for future partners. Students on the teams have a variety of interests and talents in addition to engineering.

“We also have a business arm,” said Staunton. “Kids put a business plan together, a budget, and a pitch they take on the road.”

Staunton said Paul was selected as a human player three years ago, when one of the aspects of the game was throwing swimming noodles over a 7-foot-high wall. Since Paul is 6’7” and an athlete, “he was a big asset.”

Stryke Force, the Winners in St. Louis

Michigan has the highest number of FIRST teams. Stryke Force, begun by homeschoolers 10 years ago, now draws kids from 12 area schools. Stryker Corporation began sponsoring the team nine years ago with the focus of teaching kids good engineering design practices.

Staunton is committed to helping the program because he has seen how it changes kids’ lives.

“Kids learn real-world skills. A lot of them have received college scholarships,” he said.

Staunton remembers when Paul joined the team three years ago. He was quiet, but the program gave him confidence. This year, he designed a critical part of the robot. Now, the program has charted the course for Paul’s future.

Paul said, “I played a total of 12 years of soccer, but that ended my freshman year. One day, I realized it woudn’t get me where I want to be, but academics will. That’s when I decided to pursue robotics to secure that future.”

Paul has earned an academic scholarship to major in mechanical engineering at Michigan Tech University.

When Paul starts college in the fall, his dad will still be deployed to the Middle East as a computer specialist with the Air National Guard. That deployment allowed for Paul’s OMK grant in the first place.

“We didn’t have to pay a fee to get in at the competition,” said Myla, “but we did have to pay for travel, food and hotel. The grant paid for that, and we’re so thankful for it.

Paul Kovacic’s recent awards – from OMK and from FIRST

“When I see an organization like Our Military Kids, that gives from love, it doesn’t stop, it just continues,” Myla said.

For Stryke Force, this upcoming weekend schedule includes a visit to Dean Kamen’s house; a tour of DEKA, Kamen’s engineering company; some local exploration; and, of course the final competition.

It’s all an exciting adventure for Paul Kovacic, and his OMK grant was part of that. Who knows what achievements robotics will lead to for Paul and, for that matter, for the society that benefits from his efforts?

Kamen once told Forbes’s Glenn Rifkin, “We’ll be successful when you can walk up to the average kid on the street and he’ll be able to name a few heroes who…don’t dribble a basketball.”

(Please email your comments to JSMcSpadden@ourmilitarykids.org.)