Wiky High robotics team places in top group for prestigious Chairman’s Award at world championships

TRIUMPHANT—The Wikwemikong High School FIRST Robotics Team 5672 pose with their blue banner after finishing in the top three vying for the World Championship’s most prestigious award. From back row, left, Ben Lewis, David Jackson, Valarie O’Leary (chaperone), front standing, Aaryn Zoccole, Kendra Wassengesso, Ella Williams, Jayne Summers (mentor), Trinity Jacko, Angel Manitowabi, Sterling Pangowish, Bernadette Pangowish, Jason Mishibinijima, Mary Pangowish, Raven Bolton-Pheasant, Darlene Mandamin-Turner, Grey Neganegijig, Mikaila Dokum-Trudeau, Chris Mara (mentor), Aiden McCormick and DJ Maiangowi. In back, wearing blue shirts, are the FIRST Robotics Chairman’s Award judges.

DETROIT – Good things come in small packages and sometimes great things are accomplished by small schools. The Wikwemikong High School FIRST Robotics Team 5672 proved this past weekend that they could go toe to toe with the world and come out on top. The team was elated to learn that, up against more than 600 teams from across the globe, they were shortlisted in the top three for the most prestigious award on the table—the coveted Chairman’s Award.

Are they disappointed that they didn’t take the top spot—not on your life. “Making it to the top three against 600 of the world’s best teams, best of out of 1,000 and more actually when you take into account the other stream, we were pretty excited,” said The Expositor’s liaison Angel Manitowabi. “There were teams there from Japan, China and Thailand, all over the US and only five teams from all of Canada.”

The team thought they were prepared for the enormity of what they faced when they arrived at the World championships in Detroit, but no matter how intellectually reinforced you are for the challenge, for some team members coming from a small rural Northern community, it was all more than a bit overwhelming.

“When we first got there, there were 600 teams participating and each team brought 100-some students,” said Angel. “There were 40,000 to 60,000 people there in one building. There was no room to even move, no breathing space. Unless you went to a rave, there is really nothing to compare it too.” Not many raves in Wiikwemkoong. “Some of us were so overwhelmed we had to step out to get our bearings,” she said. Luckily, that coincided with the little bit of free time the crew members had to themselves. “We kind of knew what we were stepping into before. We had three phone interviews and our Facebook page even had an option to book an interview,” she laughed. “We appeared in something like 40 state newspapers down in the US and I don’t know how many in Canada.” Both the CBC and the Globe and Mail followed their progress.

Teacher/mentor Chris Mara and the Wikwemikong High School FIRST Robotics Team 5672 are all thumbs up as the competition at the world championships gets underway.

“I think we held up pretty well,” said Angel. “There were only five Canadian teams. We had 20 students go down, it was a little intimidating, most of the teams were the size of our school.”

But if the pressure was overwhelming, the support the team received shored them up beyond all expectation. Not only from their own community (with Ogimaa Duke Peltier travelling down to show support) but from Canada and teams from around the world.

“We definitely got a lot of support from the Canadian teams,” said Ms. Manitowabi. “They were coming up to us and telling us how proud they were that we were in the top three for the Chairman’s Award, what we had done, and how rare it was. It was a really big accomplishment.”

Unfortunately, the team’s robot suffered from the relative lack of resources available to the team. “There were 60 robots competing against us,” said Angel ruefully. “We placed last.”

But the little team that could shone brightly when it came to their impact on their community and the region at large. “That is what the Chairman’s Award is all about,” said Angel. “It’s about what you do.”

The team’s outreach work in the community has been outstanding. “We went to all of the Lego Leagues to present, to Birch Island, Lo-Ellen in Sudbury, M’Chigeeng and MSS,” said Angel.

The entire FIRST Robotics World Championships trip took nearly a week. “It was five days, well six days really,” she said. “There were two days of travelling.”

The Wikwemikong High School mascot kept the team’s spirits soaring during the intense competition.

And what did the team see in the Motor City? “I wish,” laughed Angel, noting the team did not have much time for taking in the sights and sounds of Detroit. “We did go out to eat. The Nipissing team took us to a buffet and Ogimaa Duke Peltier took us to the Fish Bowl (a local Detroit restaurant) after the awards ceremony.”

Mixing and mingling with some of the greats in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields was also an incredible experience for all involved.

“We met Woodie Flowers, the famous professor from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the most prestigious technology university in just about the entire world, our Dean’s List finalist met with a panel from Yale University. They told Mary Pangowish if she made the Dean’s List she would have a place there—that was really cool. It really opens a lot of doors.”

The team members found themselves literally rubbing shoulders with the millionaires and billionaires of the tech sector.

“For all these parts of the world to know that we exist, that is a very, very big deal,” said Angel. “It was quite something to see our community members there with hundreds of teams from around the world at the event,” said Ogimaa Peltier. “For the team to compete at that level and to come in as one of the top three finalists in the most prestigious award when there was something like 10,000 submissions and yet they are going forward as one of the top three in the world, it was amazing. The support they received, quite a round of applause, it was something to see and hear.”