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    Posted March 25, 2014 by
    MIlwaukee, Wisconsin

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    Developing America’s Next Leaders Through Robotics


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     mediaman says he learned about the regional robotics competition through friends and wanted to get "a behind-the-scenes look at robotics, what the kids go through, and what they learn from the experience."
    - dsashin, CNN iReport producer

    In the world of high profile sports, we think about superstars, big scores, and supersized contracts. From high school through college all the way to the pros, kids dream of being a superstar. It’s less about team, and more often about “me.” In Milwaukee, as the Wisconsin Badgers fought the Oregon Ducks for a chance to reach basketball’s March Madness, just a few blocks away another event drew a completely different crowd. A large contingent of dedicated high school students, surrounded by mentors aided by thousands of parents, students, and cheering spectators helped them navigate their way through a Midwest regional robotics competition. This event focuses more on teamwork, rather than individual victories in helping to shape tomorrow’s leaders.


    As you walk in the US Cellular Arena, you immediately feel the energy. Loud music pumps the beats of Katy Perry, One Republic, and Lorde as colored lights fill the area. The crowds cheer and clap as the announcers raise their amplified voices as if a championship prize fight was about to begin at Madison Square Garden. Participants wear face paint and customized T-shirts and outfits. Team mascots fill the arena with personality and drama. At center stage, a group of sophisticated high tech robotics maneuver, dart, and shoot large red and blue balls in a series of coordinated moves. The atmosphere seems more like NCAA basketball, NASCAR, and a rock concert all rolled into one. In reality, this was the 9th Annual US FIRST 2014 Wisconsin Regional Robotics Competition, bringing teams from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Kansas, North Dakota, and California together for team competition. FIRST is non-profit organization created in 1989 promoting the concept of “Practicing gracious Professionalism®.” Their vision is “to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders."


    The FIRST Robotics Competition challenges teams of high school students, along with mentors “to solve a common problem in a six-week timeframe using a standard "kit of parts" and a common set of rules.” The regional event challenges teams, red vs. blue, made up of three teams each. The six team field goes through a 2 minute challenge, first having the robots shoot large balls through specific areas on the floor through preprogrammed computer codes, followed by a period where the students take over with joy-stick control.  The teams with the highest point totals move on through the competition, culminating with the finals when ranked teams can form new team alliances to win the final regional competition, and a chance to attend the national competition in St. Louis.


    As you walk through the “robotic pits” they resemble a NASCAR pit. A long list of who’s who corporate sponsors and suppliers include GE, Rockwell Automation, Motorola, Google, and Microsoft. Power tools and computer diagnostic equipment fill the area. While some may think this is a world for geeks, it’s far from the truth. Team # 537, the Chargers from Sussex, Wisconsin provided some context to the perception.


    Eric Thompson, labeled as the Human Player for #537, plays football, is in the National Honor Society and spends about 3 to 4 hours a day on robotics, plus weekends. He had four tests to prepare for the coming Monday. Eric added, “Being in robotics has helped me in time management.” Adam Klager, a short red-head from Sussex, WI is the Secondary Driver. He is taking two AP high school classes and is in the chess club. He says working in robotics has helped him learn important leadership skills, a reoccurring theme of other robotic teams.


    Team advisor and coach for Team #537 is Lori Hinytz. She commented, “I really don’t have any background in robotics, but I know how to lead.” She tells her team of 60+ students how to be humble in victory and not gloat in success. As a kid her parents described her as a nice combination of “spunk and sass.” Her robotics team treats her with respect and listens intently to what she says. After the first day of competition her team was seeded in first place and took a moment to be interviewed on the school bus. She says, “Your head and your heart have to be on board to be successful in whatever you are doing” in school and in choosing your career. As she continued Lori’s eyes welled up in emotion, saying again, “That’s the heart.” Later Hinytz posed for a photo in front of their pit area. She said being the robotics advisor for Hamilton High School is about how students can become leaders and team players through robotics, rather than focusing on the awards. She describes her kids as being “remarkable, resilient, and never ending.”


    Hinytz demands success and achievement and can multitask with the very best. During her interview she jumped up and announced to the team, “If you haven’t already texted your parents to pick you up, do it now!” Without skipping a beat, she sat back down and continued the interview. Forceful, a strong leader, with an empathetic side, she commands respect.


    Each team at the FIRST event brings their own image and personality. Veronica Boratyn, Team #111, Wildstang from Schaumburg, Illinois sported a tie-dyed T-shirt and talked about being a girl among all the guys on the team. She didn’t mind it at all. She is planning for a career in biomedicine. Anton Zaytseu from Team #192 GRT came from Palo Alto, California with spiked red hair to go along with the team’s all-red-hair motif. Bradley Donavon from Team #3018 Nordic Storm wore a Viking’s headpiece. His team eventually qualified to the national competition.


    Back at #537’s pit, John Block, a tool and die manufacturer and mentor for the team spoke about how parents help keep the program going. According to John, the student team “has gotten so good at the machining practices the mentors have a stand back approach, letting the senior students teach the incoming students.” John added that his son, who has mild autism also benefited from the program. He said the experience helped his “son go from being quiet, to someone with an air of confidence.” When companies hire robotic team members, they don’t treat them as students, but rather as professional employees. Their leadership skills help them as they develop their career paths.


    As the teams continued to jockey for position and place, team #537 began to fade after compiling at 9-0-1 record heading into the finals. In the end, #537 fell out of contention as other team alliances eventually qualified to attend the national robotics event in St. Louis. As the FIRST event concluded, the judges formed a line on the arena floor to award the event champions, and hand out honors for robotic innovation, achievement, teamwork, academics, and safety. Team coaches, staff, and students went through the line shaking hands and giving “high fives.” The audience cheered and applauded each other.


    Back in the pit area of #537, one team member stood alone. The team’s robot was in the arena and the empty pit area was framed by the awards from past wins. In the background, you could still hear the announcer talking loudly on the P.A. system, as the audience continued cheering and applauding. But, in pit #537, it was silent. If you listened carefully, you could almost still hear Coach Hinytz talking about the students she still inspires… “they’re all remarkable, resilient, and never ending.” Words to remember in the classroom, in sports, robotics, and our lives. Truly, leaders are being developed right here.

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