Wheaties may be the Breakfast of Champions, at least for some. But we all know there’s a lot more to making a champion than eating a bowl of Wheaties every morning.
Besides having talented students, one thing that makes the difference between an excellent team and a good or mediocre team is the coaching.
And I’m not talking athletics, but engineering feats with robots.
Last year (2017-2018), the Heritage Christian School Patriot Robotics FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) team, the Supposable Thumbs, won their 7th state championship–their 5th one in Wisconsin. Two others were won in Illinois and West Virginia (2015, 2017).
Also, four years ago (April, 2014), the Heritage Patriots’ middle school FIRST Lego League (FLL) team—Nature’s Fury—won 3rd place Champion in the world out of 27,000 teams worldwide, both middle and high school age. (The top 120+ compete at World Festival.) That’s 3rd across the board, to be distinguished from 3rd place for Innovative Robot Design (2009) and 3rd place for Programming (2010), both just one of many categories.
There’s enough for engineers to do with the creative wheels churning all day long at work. But Mark Keup and Dan Dotson, with others along the way, have shared their expertise by immersing themselves in the Heritage robotics program in New Berlin, Wisconsin. This began with one FLL team twelve years ago, evolved into multiple teams, and branched into FTC.
This flurry of activity and success
has happened because Mark and Dan
have been CREATORS OF OPPORTUNITY.
And the opportunity for
individual team members
to make a difference has multiplied
and spread at school, in the community,
and to other teams all over the globe.
Mark has been the robotics program director for twelve years. Dan joined as a trip coordinator/fundraiser coach in January 2009 after the FLL team won the Wisconsin state tournament. The following year, he and Fred Longley coached a team that won State again, while Mark and John Gibbons coached an additional team.
Mark and Dan started FTC (2010-2011) with Dan as head coach while Mark continued coaching FLL. Numerous other parent coaches have been involved since then, but Mark and Dan have persevered as staples of the program. Mark’s sons, Nathan and Timothy, and Dan’s daughters, Heather and Bethany, have also played vital roles on the teams over the years.
The essence of fostering FIRST’s Core Values starts with the individual teams and how they are trained by their mentors.
Key ingredients of a Champion team
are Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition
(cooperative competition; rival teams helping each other).
Mix in Discovery (exploration), Innovation, Impact (application),
Inclusion (respect), Teamwork, and Fun
for a wonderful blend in a recipe for success.
Better than Wheaties.
Even better than Wheaties Bars—a favorite item in our fund-raising bake sales back in the day. AKA Caramel Chocolate Peanut Butter Squares.
Through the guidance of Coach Keup and Coach Dotson, the Heritage robotics teams embody these Core Values.
How has the robotics program grown since you started?
Mark: I began the FLL program (ages 10 – 14) in 2006. After much success in the 2008 and 2009 seasons (both state championships), we started the high school FTC program. Subsequently, both programs have thrived at HCS with most of the students pursuing STEM careers in college (the real goal) and with the teams winning numerous awards.
I’ve found through the years that the FLL program
is one of the finest hands-on STEM programs
for this age group (9-14).
Soon after Dan and I started up the FTC team (2010-2011), we re-expanded to two, then three FLL teams and also added two and then four FLL Jr. teams, which peaked us at eight teams in one year and nearly 15% of the HCS K-12 student population. Now we have two FLL and one FTC, about 30 students overall.
The high school FTC Team, The Supposable Thumbs,
has become a model program in Wisconsin.
It is very involved in hosting tournaments,
doing camps, and starting teams at other schools,
with a particular focus on providing access
to robotics in Milwaukee’s Central City.
When the team isn’t busy doing outreach, they build metal robots that compete in an arena with other robots to score points. They have been remarkably successful in competition, winning seven state championships in the robot game and winning or being nominated for FTC’s top award, the Inspire Award, almost 20 times in seven years. (They compete several times a year.) Last season they were the 4th place alliance captain at the FTC World Championship and the previous season they were a finalist for the world “Motivate Award.”
How do you introduce students to robotics?
I guess you could say the thing I create is ‘OPPORTUNITY.’
Mark: Most students have never heard about, let alone had a chance to experience, robotics. Whereas students signing up for a sport have probably kicked or thrown the ball before and those signing up for choir have probably sung before, at least in the shower, almost none of the students have experienced robotics before.
So the first opportunity I create is an opportunity to try it out. We do this by hosting demonstrations where anyone can drive a robot using a game controller. This helps students discover what it might be like. Next they could come to a practice and try it out in more depth. When they come, they will discover that robotics is actually a much broader concept than what they realized.
On the middle/elementary school level, we try to help students see what is possible. For years we’ve done camps using FLL robots that takes students who have never seen or held a real robot from the basic beginnings to programming the robot to drive through a random maze autonomously, only using sensor input.
We start with a crazy fun lab we call the ‘peanut butter and jelly robot’ to introduce students to the precision of the commands you need to give a brainless robot to make it do something real. Students write the step-by-step instructions for making a PB&J sandwich from the materials on a table and then we have a human (usually me) interpret the students’ commands very literally to make the ‘sandwich’—or whatever the outcome is—after we have spread peanut butter on the table and smashed bread or whatever craziness ensues.
What skills do students develop on a robotics team?
Mark: The high school team runs like a small entrepreneurial high tech business with marketing and business functions to go along with the software, electrical, and mechanical engineering teams that build our product, the robot. The business aspects are the parts many students find the most surprising.
They find themselves developing strong interpersonal and speaking skills—skills somewhat uncommon in the engineering world. They also learn to compete on an national and international scale, providing opportunity to develop relationships across state and national boundaries and learn about life in other cultures.
What do you do in FLL?
Mark: Each year a new theme is announced, along with the robot game and the science research project the students need to complete. The robots play on a field (4 x 8 tabletop) that corresponds to the theme for the year. The game is made up of all Legos. The robot must autonomously navigate the board to collect items, push buttons, deliver items, or other tricky objectives.
Meanwhile, students must pick a problem in the research area, research it, propose a solution, and make a presentation about it as a team.
We’ve studied many topics such as
biomedical engineering, natural disasters,
nanotechnology, transportation, food safety,
space, energy, and a lot more.
Perhaps the most fun of FLL is to see the presentations come together. Once the topic is picked and the research is complete, you need to figure out how to present it in 5 minutes to the judges.
This is where the creativity of the students really comes out . . .
We’ve put a car on trial, traveled through time,
created game shows, gone on submarine adventures,
become germ-fighting superheroes,
traveled through space and time and survived many
dangerous situations like hurricanes, volcanoes,
and tornadoes, to name a few.
How is the FTC robot program different than FLL?
Mark: Like FLL, FTC’s game changes every year. The games consists of a 30-second autonomous period where the robots must operate with pre-programmed instructions and using sensors like in FLL. Then there is a 2-minute period that they are ‘driven’ by a couple of students using game controllers like you’d see on a video game console.
One of the big creative challenges of FTC is that our robots must fit within an 18″x18″x18″ sizing cube to start the match and then can grow as big as needed. So not only do the students have to figure out ‘how’ to solve the game, they have to figure out how to do it in a way that can be folded together like an origami project at the start of the match.
We’ve had many interesting challenges over the years.
One year the robots had to pick up a small milk crate,
collect a ball, and then raise the crate in the air as far as they could.
The game designers thought students could figure out
how to get a crate 6 feet in the air.
They do have to figure out how to get it in that box, after all.
But by the time we got to Worlds,
there were teams lifting these crates over 20 feet in the air!
Lately the games have been themed out. Last year was like an Indiana Jones theme where we had to solve cryptographs, make Ciphers, and rescue relics. This year is all about space. The game features a big moon lander in the middle of the field and two big craters. The robots have to sample minerals and bring the ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ back to the proper place on the lander.
The big challenge this year is that, just like a real landing, the explorers start on the lander when it touches down. So the robots start the match hanging. They then have to manage to get to the ground and perform the autonomous objectives afterward. Then at the end of the match, after doing all the mineral collection, they need to re-attach (and hang) themselves from the lander again! All great fun!
As a coach, what are some common goals for students in FLL and FTC?
Bottom line in both programs is that I try to create an environment
where the students can discover their God-given uniqueness
and develop their critical thinking abilities
while having a LOT of fun. And it works.
Mark: It is not uncommon for the students to develop such strong passions for robotics that they would prefer to spend almost all of their free time ‘working’ at it. Some of our top students on our best teams put in 500-1000 hours per season to try to hit their goals.
How do you encourage creativity in students and what is your role?
Mark: Creativity in robotics comes from an optimistic attitude that whatever the students dream up is something worthy of pursuit. Often times they are told to follow the rules or to do things a certain way. Robotics is the opposite. Often there are hundreds of different ways to solve a problem and, possibly, nobody has solved it before.
It takes some students a while to break from the mindset that they have to color within the lines or to take a completely blank piece of paper (or an empty Computer Aided Drafting file) and start drawing what their mind conceives.
My job in this is to encourage and to help them form a picture
of what is possible that exceeds the boundaries
of what they can comfortably achieve.
How do you incorporate your own creativity into coaching FTC?
Mark: My own creativity is applied to helping figure out how to fund and sustain our teams. The biggest of all challenges is getting parents to commit to helping by being coaches and chaperones and such.
Often I see ideas in my work that can be applied in robotics (though equally often it is the other way around).
I sit and think a lot. I research what others do. Often I’ll see a pattern that is interesting or an idea that could be applied differently. Most of the time those ideas are way out of reality for what it is possible for me to achieve. But if I really like an idea, I need to share it.
Since almost all my free time is spent on robotics, that means talking to the students and raising ideas in the form of “What if we did the following …” Since I’ve trained most of them to think anything is possible, they listen and a dialog ensues.
Sometimes we have practical conversations about whether it is even possible and sometimes we try to refine the idea.
For the keeper ideas, usually I look for two or more students
to get really excited about it.
Then we make a plan to brainstorm the concept.
The best part of this is that by modeling doing this, I train the students to do the same thing. So we have a LOT of these kinds of conversations. Many ideas are discarded or put on the back burner. A few we keep.
What’s an example of this?
Mark: A recent example of this was an idea the students had to improve the quality of the experience for new FTC teams. The team has to create this elaborate “Engineering Notebook” for judging. Ours often ends up over 500 pages! But many new teams have no idea how to get started.
The team brainstormed the idea and decided they would
be more efficient and likely to capture more information
if it was easier to gather the input
and less difficult to generate great looking output.
We brainstormed a lot of ideas . . .
Eventually, we hit on the idea of having a custom software application for gathering input and generating output. Great idea, but we did not have the skills to create such a software application.
It would be easy to let such an idea die as ‘too big’ for our small team. However, I knew people with the skills to do the work and the students had all the ideas for what that work was. So I had the students write down in a professional way what they wanted this application to do and to draw up some mock drawings of it. I then connected them with professional software developers at my company so they could ‘sell’ their concept and how this software would benefit the community. It worked.
One of the software developers took on the project
and worked with the team over the course of a year,
in his spare time, to create a fantastic new software
tool that the team can use.
Rather than keeping that tool to themselves,
the Thumbs have released it publicly.
Across the country,
dozens and dozens of teams are now using it.
Each year, over 1000 new FTC teams are created and each has the opportunity to use the app to shorten their ramp up time and learn how to do the Engineering Notebook in a very professional manner. The team is now working on version 2.
Whereas before, they didn’t have the skills to build the application, they are now seeing that it is possible that they could grow those skills, so they are working to take on the source code and expand the project! That’s the sort of stuff that happens on a regular basis when coaching robotics.
How have you seen students grow as individuals?
Mark: They grow a lot as they stretch themselves in these areas.
I’ve seen shy freshman turn into dynamic outgoing seniors.
I’ve seen students who don’t usually like to be around
other students develop strong bonds of friendship
with their team and I’ve seen the program generate
many amazing leaders that will no doubt
impact the world as they grow up.
Our FTC team in particular has really done a lot to develop leadership as we assigned department directors, captains, and officers in our robotics leadership council. Amazingly, one of our students had such an impact in his nine years of robotics that he was selected as a FTC National “Dean’s List” winner in 2017. (The Dean’s List is the annual national MVP award.)
The Dean’s List, named after Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST and the inventor of numerous biomedical devices and the famous Segway vehicle, goes to to the top ten leaders and role models in FTC across the world each year. We’ve had other students win the state award and also win the state FLL mentor award for assisting younger students’ growth.
Any other student examples of excelling?
Mark: There are many examples of the impact of this program on students, but one of my favorites is this. We had a student, Daniel Anderson, who started in FLL in 4th grade. It turned out he was really, really good at programming. Eventually, he got so good that his team won 3rd place at the FLL World Championships (2014). While there, the engineers from Lego Group who wrote the software for the CPU were there. This student got a chance to meet with them and tell them how he applied their work. They were astounded that an 8th grader could do this and asked to take his code so they could share it inside their company.
This student chose to leave HCS for high school. Normally, you’d never hear from him again. But not so.
He was so impacted by our program that he took
two days a week after school and almost every Saturday
to come back to our school to mentor students in our program.
Many of those students got an opportunity to grow
because of his work.
He also impacted his school, Brookfield Central, by being a part of the FIRST Robotics Competition team, eventually becoming lead programmer. While there, he also started another FTC team at his school. Since then he has graduated and is now studying Software Engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
He is a perfect example of what I create —
an opportunity for God to mold character, refine skill,
and develop identity and purpose in a young person’s life.
This is just one of many and what drives me to
keep doing this robotics thing, now thirteen years
after we first launched it.
Any tips for developing creativity?
If you are going to create something,
put your best self into making it come alive.
Don’t limit yourselves only to the tools or skills you have.
Be open to developing new skills.
Be open to connecting with other people who have the skills
or tools to learn from them.
Generally, people love to be asked and love to be needed.
Perhaps most importantly, to do anything significant,
you need to persevere: through tough times,
through naysayers, through failure after failure.
It can take years, but if you stick with it,
you’ll look back and be shocked
about how much you’ve grown.
Mark: This is particularly true for me in the area of robot mechanics. In our program, the kids do all the work, but it helps as a coach if you have some idea what that works is. In my case, though, I am not a mechanically oriented person. Not at all, really. However, the Supposable Thumbs are recognized as a team that constantly pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in FTC. After all these years, I’ve found that hanging out with all these smart kids has made me smarter and more intuitive about mechanical stuff. Sometimes I even can understand what they are talking about now.
The Supposable Thumbs have their own website. Check out their 4 one-minute videos.
The first 3 videos are the 4106 team’s nominating their coaches for the Compass Award at North Super Regional (NSR), 2014 – 2016. The first video is nominating Mr. Keup. Note their clever variation on “The Brady Bunch” theme. The video placed third.
The second and third videos are nominating Coach Dan Dotson and Coach Grandpa Keup, respectively. See how much these kids appreciate their mentors. The fourth is a promo video by student Caleb Rice.
No doubt, by running the robotics program at Heritage Christian School, Mark Keup and Dan Dotson have been CREATORS OF OPPORTUNITY. And blessed are the students who have taken advantage of it.
The future . . .
Learn more here:
In what ways have you pushed the boundaries of things you didn’t think possible?
How have you been inspired to start pushing those boundaries?
I’d love to hear from you!
P.S. The blog is taking a six-week break. Come back in mid-January for more creativity–including Book Talks, the Arts in Education, Creative Gift Giving and Fund Raising, Art Prize, Food & Hospitality, People Watching, Monday Metaphor Musings, and more!