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First Nations team member DJ Maiangowi prepares a ring which will be grabbed by his team's robot during a qualifying match at the FIRST Championship, on Thursday, Apr. 25, 2019 in Detroit, Mich. The team comes out of Wikwemikong High School on Manitoulin Island, Ont., which is home to just over 13,000 people.Jose Juarez/The Globe and Mail

Mary Pangowish had never seen a First Nations team make it to the robotics world championships, much less expect her own team to qualify.

But competing in the FIRST Championships in Detroit has been one of her and her teammates’ biggest achievements.

“They’re all so proud of what they’ve done and they’re all so proud of who they are,” the 11th-grader said. “They also get to be part of the change of what First Nations know that they can achieve, to be competing in a STEM competition at the world level.”

The team’s entry into the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition makes them the first fully First Nations group from Canada to qualify for the robotics world championships. While Indigenous people have been underrepresented in STEM fields, Ms. Pangowish’s team is one of a growing number of teams in First Nations communities, like those at Pelican Falls First Nations High School and Six Nations Polytechnic.

Team 5672 (also known as First Nations STEM) comes out of Wikwemikong High School on Manitoulin Island, Ont., which is home to just over 13,000 people. Ms. Pangowish said they were the first robotics team on the island and in the five years since the team was founded, they’ve focused some of their efforts on reaching out to middle schools and high schools in the area to get them interested in establishing their own robotics teams.

Their work in the community played a part in the team receiving the FIRST’s Chairman’s Award at the provincial qualifying level for embodying the values of the organization’s mandate to encourage young people to seek out areas in STEM.

According to Statistics Canada, there are just over 18,000 First Nations people working in a STEM field, accounting for less than 1 per cent of the total STEM labour force in Canada. That low representation is why Chris Mara, a teacher at the high school and the team’s coach, said he wants to see more First Nations people engaged in areas like technology and mathematics. By starting the robotics teams in 2015, he hoped it would give more students the opportunity to see themselves in STEM fields.

“It’s so important to have their voices at the table,” he said. “It's not just what building the robot can do for the students, but also how important the students voices and First Nations voices are in STEM.”

Team member Bernadette Pangowish is one of Mr. Mara’s students who’s learned a lot from being on the team. Bernadette said she was initially apprehensive at the thought of working with the technology, but became more confident in her skills over her two years on the team. For Bernadette, making it to the world championships came as a pleasant shock.

“It’s still mind blowing to me,” the 12th-grader said. “I’m just really proud that we made it this far and that we’re representing a whole community of people.”

This year, the team showcased their robot Biiabco Nimoosh 5.0 – an Anishinaabemowin term meaning “iron dog” – at the competition.

The bot came together from the ground up, starting with the drive chain it uses to move. It took six weeks to build, which often meant late nights at the school for Mr. Mara and the team as they tweaked and refined their machine.

Outfitted with a pneumatically-powered elevator lift, Biiabco Nimoosh 5.0 went up against robots from around the world for the competition’s theme this year, Destination: Deep Space. Competitors used their joystick-controlled creations to load cargo bays and attach hatch panels to those bays to secure the material inside.

Darlene Mandamin-Turner, a 12th-grade student on the team, helped in building the robot’s lift. Ms. Mandamin-Turner echoed Bernadette, calling it “empowering” to be a part of a historic group of people at the competition.

Team 5672 fared well at their first appearance at the world competition this year, placing as one of three finalists for the international Chairman’s Award out of thousands of teams. Mr. Mara said they’ve also secured their spot for the world championships next year.

Another team member, 11th-grader Aaryn Zoccole, said the work herself and her team have done at the competition will help change the trajectory of Indigenous people in Canada.

Aside from their aspirations during competitions, Mary Pangowish said her goal for herself and her team has always been to set an example for other First Nations youth who may not feel that work in the STEM field is an option.

“I hope we make a good role model for these kids,” she said. “I really want them to know that this is completely attainable for them. There’s no reason for First Nations or Indigenous students [not] to be in STEM.”