GETTING TO KNOW – You don’t necessarily have to be a techie to start a youth robotics program; you just need passion and a whole lot of dedication.
At least that’s what Ballston Spa resident Lisa Russell has found. She and her son Tyler run several robotics programs at Saratoga County 4-H, some competitive and some non-competitive. They coach the RoBovines, a FIRST Tech Challenge team, and a FIRST LEGO League Challenge team.
Lisa, who owns a daycare business, was in 4-H when she was growing up in Ballston Spa and got Tyler into it at a young age. Tyler, who graduated from Ballston Spa High School in 2012 and now works in information technology, started the robotics program at Saratoga County 4-H with Lisa about a decade ago.
At the time, it was among the first like it in the state and though it started small, it has grown quite a bit over the years, with about 60 kids enrolled. Last year, the RoBovines competed and won against other teams around the state, eventually making it to the world championship in Houston, Texas. They raised more than $17,000 in a matter of weeks to get the whole team there last spring.
The team – and the entire robotics program – hasn’t slowed down all that much since then and The Gazette recently caught up with Lisa and Tyler, coming off of a packed month of competitions and community events.
Q: Can you tell me about the different robotics programs you both run?
Tyler: FIRST is the overarching body that we do all of our robotics under. There’s a FIRST Tech Challenge and the RoBovines team is a FIRST Tech Challenge team. They build metal robots with Android-based electronics on them. Then there’s a LEGO League and they build a LEGO robot and do a project design.
We also have the non-competitive group that we run. We’re at 35 kids doing non-competitive LEGO robotics. They come in every other Wednesday. They build a LEGO robot and program their LEGO robot and then run it on the field.
Then we also have two younger groups that do just a little bit more playing with LEGOS, a little bit less of the programming side of things. It’s run by our [RoBovines team] kids at this point. Lisa and I show up to give them some support from an adult perspective but the kids organize, set up the programs, run the programs and do all the lessons. We’re just there to support them at this point, which is awesome.
Lisa: [In the] RoBovines program, our youngest is 13 and our oldest is 16. We’re teaching them leadership [and] public speaking. They’ve been at three competitions this year and at each one of those, they run this robot which is an 18 by 18 [inch] robot that runs on a 12-foot by 12-foot field. So that’s one aspect of it and the other aspect is they have to present their season to judges and [talk about] what they’ve done.
We want them to be well-rounded kids. We’re not looking for it just to be a robotics program. Outreach is a part of it, public speaking is a part of it, building [is another] and the programming. It’s giving them all those skills and it’s making them work together because our kids are from four different school districts. They wouldn’t know each other any other way.
Q: Last year, the RoBovines made it to the FIRST FTC world championship. What was that like?
Tyler: It was crazy. It was the first time that our FTC team has been and the kids still talk about it. There are teams from all over the world. I believe the winners from last year were from Romania. We met teams from Mexico, Egypt, Romania, all over the place.
Lisa: Some of the stuff that they’ve done this year, they’ve actually done because of what they learned at worlds. They changed some of their programming because they saw how [another team’s] robot ran and they were like, ‘how’d you do that?’
Q: What have been some of the biggest challenges in running the program?
Tyler: COVID was a huge problem. We went completely virtual for competitions and for all of our stuff.
Our kids wanted to meet a lot more than we really could even let them meet because of the rules that were being imposed by 4-H and by the state. But we worked through it and we heard stories every week from other coaches about how much they were struggling as well.
We were very fortunate, really with the background that we came from that we were even able to meet.
Q: What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of it?
Lisa: I would say seeing their successes, and not just successes win-wise. The wins are always nice, obviously. When our programmers can actually get the robot to do what they’ve asked it to do, the excitement in the room is palpable because not only are the programmers excited, but the people that build and do all the other stuff know how much work they’ve done and they’re cheering each other on.
Tyler: The most rewarding part is watching our team take over the program at this point. We have one of our members running our whole competitive LEGO program. We weren’t going to run the program at all and he stepped up. So he recruited kids, he scheduled meetings, he planned all of it. We have three other kids running all of our county-wide programs as well. And it’s all our kids running the younger programs. It really is so rewarding to watch these kids take over.
Lisa: [It’s also] rewarding watching what it’s doing to 4-H. 4-H struggles, as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, etc. At this point, kids are involved in so much, to try to make any one thing be their priority is a struggle. But this year, we probably enrolled 40 new kids in Saratoga County 4-H programs. That’s 40 families, that even if only 10 families stay involved in other 4-H [programs] that’s huge.
We are currently working on a 3,600-square-foot STEM building on Middleline Road because we’ve outgrown the space that we’re at. We have a facility but right now, on Wednesday nights, we take up any classroom space they have.
The need for the STEM building is real. So being able to actually say, you build it, we will fill it, that’s very rewarding to me too.
Q: Anything else you want people to know about the program?
Tyler: If anyone wants to start a program, they should definitely reach out because we are constantly looking to bring on new teams and new coaches.
Lisa: Our biggest problem right now is a lack of adult participation, which is a problem everywhere. We could teach them what they needed to know. As much as we would love more kids and we constantly want to grow this program, we also need adult involvement. You don’t need to know anything [about robotics]. I’m great proof that you don’t need to be a techie to do this.
“Getting To Know …” is a weekly feature spotlighting people making a difference in the lives of others. If there’s someone you think we should feature, let us know by emailing us at [email protected].