Israeli teams will come to Detroit for an international competition, known as the FIRST Championship.

By Sara Berkowitz Eaker

Featured photo courtesy of Technion

The future is technology and that future will be well represented at the 2019 FIRST Championship April 24-27 at Cobo Center in Detroit, featuring a celebration of space, innovation and STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

This is the world’s largest STEM jubilee, bringing together thousands of students from around the world who participate in K-12 robotics programs along with educators, industry professionals, sponsors and organizations. Also, following the theme of building your own robot, 1,300 robots built by these young visionaries will be making the journey to Detroit.

Detroit was chosen because it is a hub of technology, manufacturing, invention and creativity. Another competition will be held in Houston earlier this month.

When it comes to innovation, Israel is often at the forefront. FIRST Robotics Israel was brought to Israel 16 years ago by Israel Air Force Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Avihu Ben-Nun and Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

“From 12 teams in year one, we’ve grown to more than 1,200 teams in 2019, from all over Israel, across genders and religion,” said Alon Wolf, a professor at the Technion who heads the program. “We have four programs in Israel starting in kindergarten through 12th grade for a total of 15,000+ students with 2,000 volunteers around the country.”

FIRST is still a project of the Technion and run by the Technion as one of its leading outreach activities. This year, Israel will send 600+ high school students, including teams from Detroit’s Partnership2Gether region in the Central Galilee, to participate in the championship in Detroit. Ben-Nun will accompany the Israeli teams, along with mentors, parents and volunteers.

“We have strong leadership in robotics and technology at the Technion,” Wolf said. “My research is in the field of robotics and, for many years, I was involved with STEM activities. I was asked 10 years ago to take the lead at the Technion with the program.”

Though competition is important, Wolf believes the most important factor is cooperation.

“FIRST was founded on the concept and philosophy that teams can and should help and cooperate with each other even as they compete,” Wolf said. “Cooperation involves learning from teammates. It is teaching teammates. Cooperation means competing always but assisting and enabling others when you can.”

Teams that follow this philosophy, promote STEM and follow the competition principles can earn a spot on the dean’s list, which awards them a free ticket to the world championship, Wolf explained.

A special guest at the competition will be Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and international founder of FIRST Robotics.

Dr. Richard and Sally Krugel, longtime Jewish Federation and Jewish community lay leaders, will be volunteering at the event. They know Ben-Nun well.

“In 1974-75, we were stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. This is where the Air War College is located, including the upper echelon of generals. We were there the first time an Israeli was invited over. That Israeli was a pilot at the time, Avihu Ben-Nun,” Sally Krugel said.

“We lived on base and so did he and his wife, and we became fast friends. Years later, Avihu Ben-Nun became commander of the Israeli Air Force. When he retired, he was in a business conglomerate and one of his portfolios was General Motors, so he would come to Detroit with the Israeli GM affiliate.”

Richard Krugel explained Ben-Nun took this leadership role because it helps build Israeli technology. GM has a research and development facility in Herzliya, Israel, where they are working on autonomous vehicles and research that exceeds the research capabilities of GM here in the U.S., Krugel said.

“Our goal is to get people out to the event and give the Israeli kids in Cobo Center our support.”

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