Seven years ago, if someone had asked Michael and Carol McKellar whether they would be coaches of an award-winning, world-renowned robotics team, they likely would have laughed. But today, it's a reality.
The McKellars are not engineers or technology wizards. In fact, they had never even built a robot before. But the Elgin parents did have strong motivation; the couple's twins both showed an interest and a talent for robotics after working with a basic kit at the age of 9.
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"Just because it was not our expertise, does not mean we cannot help them pursue it," said Carol McKellar, who added they both have backgrounds in graphic design. "We stepped out of our comfort zone and found something very special for all of us."
Today, "got robot?" has grown into a respected team, earning top honors through both 4-H and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) competition platforms. The 2013-2014 team is made up of seven Kane County 4-H members ages 12 to 17, who meet twice a week at the Elgin Technology Center.
"It's the hardest fun you'll ever have," said Michael McKellar. "Our team is well-rounded, like a business. We need strategy, programming, engineering, and leadership. Everybody fills a role and works as a team. It's the only way to succeed."
According to the McKellars, the competition platform of FIRST promotes its trademark "gracious professionalism" by rewarding qualities like sportsmanship, respect, and honor. The coaches also credit the 4-H mindsets of leadership and "learning by doing."
"Combining FIRST with 4-H brings together two very strong platforms for our team," said Carol McKellar. "Both emphasize not only skill building, but also character building."
Michael McKellar added, "The end result is what the students do. We'll guide them and manage the process, but they learn from doing. It is something special to see their reaction when they get it and that light bulb turns on."
That feeling of accomplishment is crucial to building confidence and skills, they said.
"As coaches, we ask the kids what they want to achieve and we help them move toward those goals," Michael McKellar said. "It is amazing to watch them mature and grow into their own."
This year's team members are: Chris Laker, 15, of Hanover Park; Marcos Marquez, 17, of St. Charles; Kristen McKellar, 17, of Elgin; Matthew McKellar, 17, of Elgin; Aidan Pollard, 14, of St. Charles; Bo Russell, 15, of South Elgin; and P.J. Stephen, 12, of Elgin.
Team members' goals may vary greatly with areas of focus, including strategy, design, engineering, programming, public speaking and mentoring, to name a few.
"They all are hard workers and together they complement each other," Michael McKellar said.
Marcos is a great leader and serves as the drive team coach. Bo, the "driver," also has embraced a public speaking role and computer-aided design (CAD) duties. Aidan is a two-year FIRST Lego League veteran, who has now moved into the FTC league as an assistant mechanical engineer and fabricator.
Chris is the "gunner" and has taken on an important role in CAD. Matthew is a naturally-gifted problem-solver, so he focuses on engineering and design. Kristen gravitates toward programming, but also writes and teaches curriculum for the overall FTC program. P.J., the youngest member, is an exceptional programmer, for any age.
This season, "got robot?" -- also known as FIRST Tech Challenge Robotics Team 5037 -- has already advanced to the 2013-2014 FTC Illinois State Championship at IIT in Chicago, where they will compete on Saturday, Feb. 22.
In December, the team won the prestigious Inspire Award at the IIT Illinois Qualifier. This honor recognizes the team that truly embodied the challenge of the FTC program, while acting with "gracious professionalism" both on and off the playing field.
This season's FTC challenge, which is called Block Party, included a directive to design a robot to pick up blocks. The team's strategy for this task has been their "secret weapon."
Another test in the 2-minute, 30-second match is to end with the robot hanging from a pullup bar in the middle of the competition field. They designed a robot that not only can hang from the bar, but also allows their alliance partner team's robot to do so, too.
"During the lift, we share the bar," explained Michael McKellar. "The fishing-line design allows our robot to drop a hook over the bar, then back away releasing line while the other robot pulls up on the bar. Then, our robot reels itself in to hang, sharing the same space on the bar."
The team's ultimate goal is to advance to the Super-Regional Championship at University of Iowa in early April, which is an impressive, but expensive, endeavor.
Last year's team qualified for the World Championship in St. Louis and had to raise more than $15,000 to compete. The youth made it there with their hard work at multiple local fundraising events, as well as with generous grants.
Before their experiences at the FTC level, "got robot?" also earned high honors in the FIRST Lego League. Due to the continued success of their team, the members and coaches of "got robot?" often are asked to mentor other teams.
In fact, their team has helped several other successful groups, including the Abbott Middle School and Thundercloud teams, both of which are 4-H robotics special interest clubs.
"The opportunity has really had an amazing impact on the kids involved, and 'got robot?' has influenced so many other great teams, not just here in northern Kane County, but all over," said Donna Nuger, University of Illinois Extension Educator, 4-H and Youth Development.
"Kids who work with them truly learn. Their youth members cannot only do the work, but they teach it to others. That shows true proficiency."
Another important factor in the team's success is parent and community involvement.
"All our parents and families are so supportive," Carol said. "They work hard to fundraise. They juggle car pools to get team members to practice, tournaments, and outreach events. They give their time and cheer us on."
Team parents assist as coaches, including Pat Stephen and Tim Pollard, and Sandy Laker helps shoulder the administrative duties. In addition, Marc Solomon, who previously served as the Kane County 4-H Robotics Judge, volunteers as a dedicated mentor to the team.
Carol encourages other adults out there to share talents -- or even step out of their "norm" -- to lead special interest, educational groups for area youth.
"There are more kids out there than we could ever have on a single team," Carol explained. "It takes adults to lead and guide them. We try hard to mentor new coaches and teams so that other kids can have this amazing opportunity."
If you are interested in starting a 4-H Robotics SPIN Club, visit web.extension.illinois.edu/dkk/ or contact University of Illinois Extension Educator Deanna Roby at (630) 584-6166.
If you would like to donate to the "got robot?" fundraising cause, visit www.gotrobot.us/ or contact Carol McKellar at (847) 302-1633.