Spotlight on a FLL ‘Hero’

In this series, my goal is for us to ‘toot the horn’ of some of the amazing people we know who are involved with FIRST® LEGO® League. Most of these people don’t usually like standing in the spotlight as they always want to keep it about the kids. They’re the coaches, mentors and facilitators who we all know and love – and I figured it was high time they got the recognition they deserve.

My first FLL ‘Hero’ is someone who originally introduced me to FIRST : Dave Parker. Many of you will know of Dave through his website: nxtprograms.com. This last week, I sat down with Dave and asked him about his long history with FLL.

Dave Parker first learned about FIRST and FLL during the Mission Mars Challenge year (2003). As a software engineer, the idea of having a competitive robotics program for students sparked his imagination. His two sons were not yet in middle school but he decided to approach the school that they would eventually be attending and see about starting an after school team. He obtained the approval along with 4 Mindstorms (RCX) kits. Since the FLL competition season was over for the year, he created a non-competitive robotics club with challenges that taught the kids basic building and programming skills. It didn’t take long for news (and popularity) of the club to spread, and soon Dave was teaching three sections that met 3 to 4 days per week throughout the school year. Dave told me that one year he calculated that over half of the eligible boys at the school were in his robotics club.

During his eight years volunteering at Weimar Hills Middle School, Dave not only sparked a love of STEM in countless students, he also coached a total of 14 FLL teams- with half of them qualifying to compete at the State level of competition. During the “No Limits” Challenge season in 2004, members of his team came to our elementary school and gave a demonstration — and I had my first glimpse of an FLL robot.  Last year (Food Factor) was Dave’s last season coaching FLL. His team, BEBO, won Second Place Champion’s Award at the NorCal Capital District Championship and received the Programming Award at the North American Open at LEGOLAND in San Diego – and Dave couldn’t be prouder.

Along with coaching and mentoring, Dave also created a website that a lot of you probably know. In July 2006, LEGO introduced the NXT kit. By that point, the school clubs that Dave created had 20 RCX kits which they used daily in their activities. The students would get excited about robots and some of them got NXT kits as gifts. Since the new system was so different, the kids couldn’t really do the same things they were doing in the club — so they (and their parents) asked Dave for ideas on what to build after they’d completed the LEGO designs. At the same time, Dave also began to realize that students seemed to be getting stuck at similar plateaus in programming. So, he bought his own NXT kit and started tinkering. He created new projects out of his kit and programmed them, putting detailed build instructions and downloadable programs onto a website:  nxtprograms.com. The site became an instant hit and is hugely popular – and Dave gets correspondence from kids from all over the world, most recently from a young boy in Pakistan!

With his sons now in High School, and with looming cut-backs and space issues at the Middle School, Dave figured it was a good time to make a move. Since he’d always wanted to have a place where he could keep his teaching equipment out – plus be accessible to the entire area’s FLL community – Dave decided to open an independent training center in Penryn, California. Smart Fingers Robotics offers after-school classes, custom workshops and free mentoring for local FLL teams. When he’s not teaching classes at Smart Fingers, Dave travels around the country as a  LEGO Education Trainer, and does consulting work with LEGO Denmark as a member of the Mindstorm Community Partners Board (he’s recognized as one of the top experts in the NXT-G language worldwide!)

Dave does all this because he believes in the value of what FLL teaches, plus – he really loves what he does. He’s one of the amazing people that helps make FLL such an incredible program, and it’s easy to see why he’s my FLL ‘Hero’!

Dave Parker – my FLL ‘Hero’

Do you have an FLL ‘Hero’ you’d like to honor? Send me an email at: heidi@norcalrobots.org