“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.
Two decades have come and gone since the City of North Bay was introduced to a competitive robotics group known as TEAM 1305. Over that time many students have come and gone through the organization, but the one constant has been Nancy Dewar-Stenning.
“I didn’t think I would still be involved 21 years later,” she says. “I was teaching at Chippewa at the time, so I knew all those kids, but I was just a little nervous that they were getting involved in something with no adult supervision.”
Four kids (including her son Brendan) had gone to Shad Valley summer camp, (now known as Shad Canada) which is an enrichment program for Canadian high school students that is run every summer in July. The program welcomes high-achieving students who have an interest in science, technology, engineering, arts, and/or mathematics (STEAM).
“They got a presentation about Robotics and decided that this is what they wanted to do. So, they got going and started searching for seed money and, back then, for a 16-year old to start emailing banks and asking for money was a big deal,” says Dewar-Stenning.
Her son Brendan was able to secure $7,000 from a local bank and Dewar-Stenning said, “I thought that was a lot of money for those kids and that maybe they shouldn’t be doing all this by themselves, just asking strangers for money. So, that’s why I got involved and I haven’t looked back. It's been pretty amazing.”
They first started building a robot out of the Auto-Doctor location on McIntyre Street while Dewar-Stenning says, they did a lot of the writing and artwork out of Chippewa Secondary School. She says right from the start they invited students from all schools to take part.
“It was a community-based team right from the beginning.”
Dewar-Stenning says there are no cliques with Team 1305, and they have a very accepting program. “If a grade nine or even a grade eight student shows up at the door and has a curiosity and an interest and are willing to work and give it a try and they have some skills, they are treated just like the grade 12 students.”
She adds all along there was great support for the group from the community as well.
“We weren’t really expecting anything from the community, but I have to say the community was outstanding. I remember doing a media release in that first year in 2001 and it was very well received.
They just loved the kids because they were just so keen on the stuff they wanted to do, even though the robot was not very good that first year. I remember being a little frightened and just thinking ‘please let that robot move’ when they were first showing it off because they had invested so much time and energy into it. And we were so excited when it did move.”
But the excitement didn’t stop there as TEAM 1305 found success very early on at a big competition.
“After the first year with FIRST Canada in 2004, we had no idea what to expect. Low and behold we won all these awards at the event at the Hershey’s Centre in Mississauga as a rookie team with FIRST. The team was invited down to the field and was high-fiving everyone on the way by and people just kept telling me ‘you’re going to Atlanta, you’re going to Atlanta,’ and I was thinking, ‘what?’ I didn’t realize we had qualified for the World Championships. Then we had four days to raise $30,000 to get down there.”
On the bus ride home, they came up with a plan.
She says, “We started figuring out a budget and planning to talk to people who have been supporting us for a few years and we just used our entire community network to get it done. People came forward and made it happen. Money should never be an obstacle in chasing a dream like that. You just have to do it; you have to have faith. We have never said we can’t do it because it costs too much and it has been tough because it is a constant awareness or search for making sure the team has enough funding.”
And the community involvement doesn’t just stop with funding.
“We have another mentor on the team, Gerry St. Denis who has never had a kid on the team, he’s not a teacher, he just represents the professional engineers of Ontario and he works so hard for us. He facilitated getting us a home base at Canadore College a few years back.”
Dewar-Stenning says all that leg work and fundraising is worth it if it means these students have the opportunities to continue showcasing their knowledge of the robotics world.
“It’s the kids that inspire us to keep going,” she says. “Why would I do this for 21 years if my kids are no longer involved?
It’s kids like Jessica Kelso who just shows so much enthusiasm for everything the club stood for. We had another student, George Wong, who used to be a captain and is now furthering his medical degree at a school in Texas. He was an immigrant in North Bay, who struggled with the English language, but by the time he left high school he was top of the class in everything and he sends me a Christmas card every year and I just melt. Every once in awhile, we get a kid like George or like Jessica who just makes you realize how worthwhile it is to be involved in this.”
Jessica Kelso is in her third year of a business program at Trent University. She says her involvement began because of a family affair. Her brother was on the high school team and her father became a mentor, but he wanted his younger kids to be involved as well. Kelso says that’s when the LEGO Robotics team started, another endeavour that has grown across the city. Even though she was basically consumed by robotics 24/7 Kelso admits “I have absolutely no experience in the actual robotics part of a robotics team.” But she wanted to be a part of the team.
“In grade eight I went to my first World Championships with 1305,” she says. “I entered a media contest with FedEx where you had to submit photo answers and I won that contest and it granted our team a $10,000 prize. That’s what got me super interested in being involved with the team.”
Kelso was involved with the team for her entire high school career, performing various roles from presenter, to chairman’s lead, to the captain of the team.
She says this shows how open and diverse this team is as she was able to fulfil all those roles without having to have the skills on the engineering side. Kelso says, “A lot of people hear that I’m involved with robotics and it takes them a minute to realize that not everyone on the team builds robots. You don’t have to be interested in engineering and that’s what makes it easy to entice anyone to get involved. It was great because all of my family are engineers and they are all building, while I was on the team and doing what I was passionate about and I gained all this experience that has propelled me through a career and through my education.”
Kelso says early on there was an attempt to get involved on the building side of the team, “In LEGO robotics I was helping out with building and those aspects, but once we got up to 1305, I realized where I wanted to be with the writing and the presenting and the sponsorships. Our team was great for that because not every team has a Chairman’s role or even a sponsorship facilitator, but our team is really great for having a role for any kind of interest anyone has.”
Kelso says it has been amazing to watch the team grow and continue to be supported in the community and she encourages more students to give it a try.
“It is so easy to join; you can even just go in and hang out and see what it's like. There’s not much going on right now with COVID-19, but we have been virtually hanging out and staying in touch with everyone.”
She has also now had the opportunity to introduce the world of LEGO robotics to two very different regions.
“In 2016 I went to Kenya and brought LEGO there which was life-changing and just an amazing experience. Then last summer I went to live in Whitehorse, Yukon for four months and I was running camps and starting LEGO teams there and they had their first tournament in January.”
Those are some of the reasons why Dewar-Stenning stays involved, to see these students not only improve their lives but turn around and give that back through mentorships.
“It is profound to see how some of these kids develop and I think they develop more quickly through FIRST because of the opportunities, the enrichment, the expectations and reaching beyond what they think they can achieve. They gain so much maturity and confidence and self-awareness and the appreciation for teamwork.”
If you have a story suggestion for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at firstname.lastname@example.org