In 2013, Michelle Grau founded Team 4904: Bot-Provoking at a new job in a brand new school. The Nueva School, then a single freshman class of 75, was reluctant to begin such a large club—but Michelle convinced them otherwise. Since then, she has been the driving force behind Nueva’s robotics programs. As our school’s STEM director, Kim Saxe, says, “the number of hours Michelle works is insane.” While teaching five classes, Michelle coaches four FLL teams, runs extra robotics programs for elementary students, and attends every single FRC meeting. Under her guidance, Team 4904 has grown to 55 members—almost 20% of the student body.
Michelle’s mentorship skills may stem from her extensive FIRST experience, where she began as a student leader on FRC Team 692: The Fembots. Since then, she has volunteered in FRC events throughout college, has been running FLL tournaments for the past eight years, and founded FRC Team 4765, in addition to her leadership of Nueva’s FIRST programs. In total, Michelle has been involved with the FIRST community for 12 years.
Whether writing last-minute recommendations for seniors or showing fourth graders how to use LEGO gears, Michelle has a deep grasp of the diverse needs of her students. Michelle knows how to find a balance between letting students discover alone and lending a helping hand—an awareness that Saxe describes as “critical” to great teaching.
During our rookie year, Michelle guided us through tasks like finding sponsors and building a drivetrain, but let us try out our own ideas in programming, prototyping, and fabrication. Our robot was a mess—it barely manipulated the ball, drove backwards instead of forwards, and constantly had parts falling off onto the field. Michelle knew many of our strategies would fail, but she inspired us to learn from our mistakes, leading a post-competition debrief that has become a yearly tradition for the team.
Four years later, it is clear that Michelle’s decisions on when to intervene and when to let us fail have taught us independence and drive. Michelle may still step in to ask a thought-provoking question, teach a student how to use the bandsaw, or reiterate the need for safety glasses, clean-up, and sleep, but she has laid the foundation for a truly student-run team. From pioneering new software protocols to creating open
source gearboxes to co-hosting a practice field for local teams, we’ve come far from our freshmen robot. Students write every line of code, machine every bracket, and solder every circuit board—and we also organize weekly subteam leader meetings, take initiatives to foster team diversity, and develop training curricula for new members. Over the past few years, we’ve grown as a team as much as we’ve grown as engineers.
Michelle is one of the best teachers we will ever have—patient, dedicated, and kind. She empowers us to make our own discoveries, fostering real, lasting inspiration for engineering and problem solving. We can’t thank her enough.