Success Story: GCI SchoolAccess and JEDC Bring FIRST LEGO League to Alaska’s Students

FIRST is a program intended to excite students about science and technology, and teach critical-thinking, team-building and presentation skills by introducing kids to real-world engineering challenges. Guided by their imaginations and adult coaches, teams of students discover exciting career possibilities and learn to make positive contributions to society by building robots to complete tasks. Depending on their age, students either participate in the FIRST LEGO League or FIRST Tech Challenge.

“FIRST is about more than robots; it’s about critical thinking, problem solving, leadership and establishing what we now call grit, giving students the drive to work towards a goal,” said Rebecca Parks, STEM Alaska program manager for the Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC). “Students are able to solve real world issues and this is important, especially for Alaska’s students, as they learn that they can have a global impact within their community.”

JEDC is an affiliate partner for FIRST and serves as a liaison between the national program and the state of Alaska. GCI SchoolAccess has also long supported FIRST nationally and in the state of Alaska, specifically by participating on the Board, volunteering to judge the competitions and providing technology and grants to help teams participate in the competitions, virtually and in person.

“We look at GCI SchoolAccess as true partners – there is a shared value between us,” Parks said. “Their employees give up their Saturdays to support us and the students.”

Valdez Team Competes Despite Avalanche

After five months of intense preparation and high marks in the FIRST LEGO League qualifying event in 2012, the Valdez FIRST LEGO League robotics team was gearing up for the regional competition in Fairbanks. The team had won a $1,000 travel grant from JEDC for their performance in the qualifying event. However, a devastating avalanche hit the remote, rural town of Valdez, Alaska, virtually isolating them from transport for 12 days. Not wanting to deprive the students of the Fairbanks FIRST LEGO League competition, the JEDC tapped GCI SchoolAccess for support.

After hearing of the students’ predicament, GCI SchoolAccess technicians flew out to the Fairbanks competition location to install a Polycom video conferencing system. Thanks to the connectivity of GCI SchoolAccess, the students were able to remotely participate in the Fairbanks competition via video conferencing. Through the power of distance learning, the Valdez students were able to win a trophy for Robot Performance. And they got to keep the travel grant from JEDC and use it for a party to celebrate their win.

“I like building robots based on ideas out of my head and not using instructions. We won a trophy for our robot not hitting anything, earning us the most points out of any other team,” said Cameron Bowden, Valdez team member. “We didn’t win overall but we were happy.”

Team coach, Cynthia Shidner, foresees more video conferencing integration among FIRST LEGO League competitions in the future. Many remote, rural Alaskan schools operate on small budgets for student robotics teams and travel can be a significant economic deterrent. Shidner believes that if school districts can provide more virtual experiences for kids, more remote and native school districts would be able to compete in enriching programs like FIRST LEGO League in the future. She looks forward to using GCI SchoolAccess again in the future, as her team has done for the last three years for the qualifying competition.

“GCI SchoolAccess went above and beyond to ensure our team could compete in the Fairbanks regional FIRST LEGO League competition,” said Shidner. “GCI facilitated an extremely rewarding experience for these STEM students. We are thankful for the positive impact GCI SchoolAccess’ services have made to our school.”

Video Conferencing Facilitates Coaching for Lower Kuskokwim School District

Video conferencing has also helped students in the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) participate in FIRST LEGO League. In fact, LKSD runs a large part of its district wide robotics program through their distance learning network.  Partner teachers are present in the villages to collaborate with the district wide robotics instructor over video conferencing to teach and coach students in the design of robots. In at least one case a team was coached virtually.  But this isn’t a small program; participation in LKSD’s FIRST LEGO League and high school First Tech Challenge is so large that they have their own Regional Tournaments each year.  Kids from all of the villages fly in to Bethel to compete. And in 2013 it was the district’s ANSEP Robotics team, coached virtually, that advanced to the First Tech Challenge, Super-Regional Tournament in Sacramento, California.

Schrödinger’s Hat Wins at World Championship

Another Alaska team is focused on sharing the benefits they have experienced with FIRST Tech Challenge thanks, in part, to GCI SchoolAccess and JEDC. Schrödinger’s Hat, a team out of Fairbanks, Alaska, earned top awards at the local and state competitions in 2014 and second place at the regionals, giving them the opportunity to join 128 teams from around the world at the World Championship in St. Louis, MO. There they placed in three of eight competitions, earning first-place in two of them. One of the awards was the Promote Award, for a one-minute student-designed video that helps to promote FIRST and STEM-related activities

“Our robot this time was focused on speed and through the design we figured out that if we had a two-sided robot we’d be able to score more,” Schrödinger’s Hat team member Colleen Johnson said. “It’s a lot of work; we build a robot and are talking to other teams and people in the community.”

As a sponsor of the statewide competition and contributor to JEDC, GCI was integral in supporting the advancement of Schrodinger’s Hat. And through the JEDC, the members of Schrödinger’s Hat are hoping to start and mentor new teams in rural Alaska; they are currently in the process of working with a teacher in Nuiqsut to provide training for FIRST Tech Challenge in person and virtually.

“Coaches are encouraged to be facilitators, not to direct students with instruction,” Schrödinger’s Hat coach Sharon Johnson said. “FIRST is student led; our job is to hook them up with opportunities, connect them with engineers and others in the community. Sometimes we have to sit back and let them make decisions even if they aren’t the decisions we would make.”

In an education environment focused on STEM, the FIRST program has become an important driver to keep students interested in learning. GCI SchoolAccess and JEDC are critical to keeping this program growing in Alaska, where it is even more important for students to connect with and learn about the role of science, technology, engineering and math in our world.

“We have to start readying students for the global economy by learning about and utilizing technology because it is the driver for innovation and economic growth,” Parks said.

  • "Our goals are never about the technology, but about instruction using technology in a variety of ways. GCI has been flexible and responsive enough to support our instructional integration as we have grown and changed as an organization."

    - John Concilus, Director of Educational Technology, Bering Strait School District