FIRST Tech Challenge Team 3595 Efforts Help Expand FIRST to the North

Given all that they’ve accomplished since starting as a FIRST LEGO League team in 2009, it’s clear the efforts of FIRST Tech Challenge Team 3595 "Schrödinger’s Hat" from Fairbanks, Alaska, has been instrumental in making “The Last Frontier” a FIRST frontier.

Schrodingers Hat TeamWith the help of FIRST Volunteer Dave Patterson — along with Coaches Tom and Sharon Johnson — Team 3595 has earned many of the top awards from FIRST Tech Challenge. However, more importantly, Schrödinger’s Hat has made it their mission to spread the FIRST word throughout “the land of the midnight sun,” learning some very important life skills along the way.

Patterson, who has known most of the team members since they were very young, says he has enjoyed watching them mature and adds, “I have had the pleasure of seeing them grow individually and together — working through problems, articulating information, and honing technical skills to accomplish a specific task.”

The retired Army Officer, now Army Civilian, says it all started in 2000, when a friend of his college-aged daughter solicited Patterson’s help with a robotics project. After Alaska’s initial FIRST team competed at a Championship Tournament in Orlando, Fla., Patterson was hooked — and inspired to bring the FIRST message to more students throughout Alaska. In 2001, Patterson connected with current team Coaches Tom and Sharon Johnson, who decided to join forces to foster opportunities for robotics competitions in the state. Since then, the three have been relentless champions of FIRST.

“This team has become the foundation of FIRST in Fairbanks,” says Patterson, who has supported the organization on many levels and in many roles, including Affiliate Partner, Planning Committee Member, Volunteer Coordinator, Emcee, Referee, Judge, Tournament Director, Logistics and Operations, and Mentor. However, the title he prefers is simply, “Volunteer.” “I’m just a Volunteer who understands the value of investing the time necessary to provide opportunities for our students to achieve greatness.”

Lessons Learned: FIRST Is Much More Than RobotsSM

From the start, the Johnsons were very impressed with the overall FIRST program. “We liked the ‘More Than RobotsSM’ aspect of FIRST competitions, as well as the emphasis on Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition®,” says Sharon, who, along with Tom, has mentored various FIRST LEGO League Jr., FIRST LEGO League, and FIRST Tech Challenge teams for 12 years — as well as their two daughters, Colleen and Katie, who are members of Team 3595.

Schrödinger’s Hat actually met through classes at a local Karate studio. “Karate taught us a lot of invaluable lessons that are similar to those we’ve learned at FIRST. Things like teamwork, problem solving, and perseverance,” says team member Katie. According to her sister, Colleen, the benefits of being involved with FIRST are many. In addition to becoming adept in technical skills such as programming, building, and engineering design, Colleen says the team members have learned important life skills such as time management, public speaking, how to write a business plan, and how to prepare PowerPoint presentations. Sister Katie says she and her teammates also have discovered the value of collaboration and how to mentor younger students. “And, now we have friends around the world who share our passions.”

Indeed, making meaningful connections with other team members across the globe is a common thread that seems to weave through all of the team’s efforts. The Asia Pacific Invitational (API) is a good example. Held in Sydney, Australia, in 2013, the API was a life-changing experience. Team members agree that one of their biggest take-aways from that tournament was the realization that FIRST Tech Challenge is a worldwide community. “We made incredible, lifelong friendships with so many people and certainly wouldn’t be the team we are today without their mentorship and guidance.”

FIRST Creates a “Culture of Opportunity”

In watching their own team and interacting with other teams throughout the world, the Coaches Johnson say they’ve come to appreciate that FIRST gives kids the tools they need to make a difference. “They become comfortable with technology — operating a lathe, creating CAD designs, and programming robots. They also become equally comfortable giving public presentations, writing business documents, and mentoring younger children. Most importantly, they learn the power of collaboration,” says Coach Tom. Coach Sharon adds, “When these FIRST kids from around the world work together to solve a problem, they are unstoppable. FIRST has created a culture of opportunity for these kids.”

And, indeed, the opportunities abound. In fact, because of their connection with FIRST, many of the students have taken advantage of some pretty special opportunities. For instance, one team member was singled out by management at NI for her unique methods of using code to solve a problem, resulting in her becoming a Certified LabVIEW Associate Developer — while still in the seventh grade. Another special opportunity arose when Team 3595 was asked to help create a wiring guide to assist other FIRST members with the technical aspects of outfitting a robot because of a presentation they made at a FIRST Tech Challenge conference. The presentation was so successful that FIRST asked the team to assist in compiling an in-depth document incorporating the wiring information.

Alaska Ambassadors: Schrödinger’s Hat Reaches Out

Arguably one of the “winningest” FIRST teams, Schrödinger’s Hat took top FIRST Tech Challenge honors for the Inspire Award at the 2015 FIRST Championship — given to the team that “truly embodies the best of the program.” In addition, the team’s 2015 video was a finalist for the Promote Award, while its 2014 video took top honors. Last year, Schrödinger’s Hat also won the Rockwell Collins Innovate Award, given to the team with the most innovative and creative robot design solution. In past years, Team 3595 has been a finalist for the Connect Award, The Motivate Award, and the PTC Design Award.

However, awards aside, Schrödinger’s Hat is perhaps most recognized for its efforts as FIRST ambassador in Alaska. To that end, team members have produced and presented numerous demos targeted to all ages — from kindergartners to rotary club members — throughout Alaska.  They also teach and mentor elementary-aged students about the basics of robot design and programming in an afterschool program, with the hopes that the younger students will one day join a FIRST LEGO League team. In addition, Team 3595 has sponsored kick-offs for both FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST LEGO League events, as well as regional qualifiers and state level tournaments.

With the help of Schrödinger’s Hat, the Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC), (Alaska’s FIRST Affiliate Partner), has conducted numerous events in the different programs across the state. This covers an area from Detroit, to Atlanta, to Dallas, to Denver. Because of the support from Team 3595, other teams, and Volunteers across the state, JEDC has submitted a bid to host the 2017–2018 FIRST Tech Challenge West Super-Regional in Alaska. Beyond the local scene, Team 3595 has spread the FIRST word to Anchorage, Kodiak, Seward, and North Pole. For the past two years, team members have even traveled to Bethel — a remote Alaskan village — to assist many other FIRST teams.

Thanks to Schrödinger’s Hat, its Coaches, Mentors, and Volunteers, the FIRST message has grown and continues to spread far and wide across the “Last Frontier” — truly making it a FIRST frontier.

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