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
"The expertise that GCI provided in setting up the (distance learning) system and in working with us as we learned to operate it was very beneficial to our educators, who wanted to focus on the content and not the technology. With GCI's support we have reached over 5,000 students across the U.S. since our program launched in 2005."
- Darin Trobaugh, Education Program Coordinator, Alaska SeaLife Center
"GCI and their team of Engineers in Anchorage are a force to be reckoned with. They have continually proven over the years to be a team player with ASTE."
- Todd Schechter, Chief Networking Engineer, Alaska Society of Technology in Education
"Petersburg City School District is very pleased with its relationship with GCI. The district considers GCI to be a strong and important partner in the overall mission of providing an outstanding education to the students of Petersburg. As a "cutting edge", "one-to-one laptop" remote island district that relies very heavily upon stable, fast, and trouble free broadband service, the district has come to expect exceptional service from GCI as the norm."
- Robert Thomason, Ed.D., Superintendent, Petersburg City Schools
"GCI's SchoolAccess program has not only pioneered the delivery of video technology in bush Alaska, they have wrapped content and outreach around their service adding immense value. One Vision is proud to support the efforts of this innovative partner."
- George Woltors, NW Territory Manager, One Vision
"GCI’s contribution of live streaming the events during our National Competition was a great success. Our schools and families that were unable to attend the event had the opportunity to see their student(s) in person. Without GCI this would not have happened!"
- Les Martisko, Ph.D., CEO, United States Academic Decathlon
"GCI SchoolAccess has serviced the Jemez Mountain School District for the past seven years impeccably. GCI has developed a product that eliminates many of the pitfalls of traditional piece-meal approaches to implement Internet services by bundling the most critical services into a concise package. Additionally, GCI is well established in the navigation of E-Rate protocols, has an outstanding technical support team, and has a highly competent education program manager."
- Adan Delgado, Former Superintendent, Jemez Mountain School District
"We have a tradition of providing our faculty, staff, and students with the most up-to-date technology that can be made available, and GCI makes carrying on that tradition a possibility. GCI is instrumental in the planning, designing, and implementation of our distance learning services. This support, along with the broadband services provided by GCI, has allowed our distance learning program to be second to none in Alaska."
- George Gladish, TAI Coordinator, Lower Kuskokwim School District
"GCI School Access has been a great partner for Ilisagvik College. In 2012 and 2013, they donated funds to support our annual STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camp, which provides a fun and educational opportunity for rural Alaskan youth. We are very grateful to GCI School Access for their sponsorship!"
- Pearl Brower, President, Ilisagvik College
"GCI has been providing technical support for videoconferencing events at the ISTE Conferences in San Antonio and San Diego to the IVC Operations Teams for the past two years. Their knowledge and experience has been a key to our success."
- Paul Hieronymus, IVC Operations Chairman, 2013 ISTE Conference
"GCI SchoolAccess makes it possible for our coaches and volunteers to communicate in the villages and most importantly make sure the students are safe by providing our coaches with mobile technology in the villages."
- Lars Flora, Director, NANANordic
"CILC has partnered with GCI SchoolAccess over the last few years on many projects that have benefited and enriched the life of people both in Alaska and the lower 48. Much of this would not have been possible without the leadership of Dr. Pam Lloyd."
- Janet L. Zanetis, CEO, The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC)
"Our administration realized our aggressive approach to educational achievement could only be met with a network that can support the growing number of mobile devices in our district and the increasing use of video conferencing for our classes. GCI SchoolAccess helped us transition off satellite and onto a terrestrial service that supports these goals."
- Dan Walker, Assistant Superintendent, Lower Kuskokwim School District
"The most powerful thing in a traditional classroom is the connection between the teacher and the student. And that connection happens over two-way video."
- Gary Baldwin, former superintendent, Lower Kuskokwim School District
"GCI is a strong educational partner with the Alaska Distance Education Consortium, helping to expand broadband, bring technical solutions, and instructional programming to high need areas."
- John Monahan, Alaska Distance Education Consortium
"Educating 4 Leadership has benefited enormously from our partnership with SchoolAccess to provide student leadership and 1:1 resources for Alaska, other states, and the UK at present. We consider the contributions from SchoolAccess to be completely vital to our work and success during the past three years. We appreciate their support!"
- Dr. Mark Standley, CEO, Educating 4 Leadership
"In the 15 years I have been an administrator in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District we have been utilizing Broadband services from GCI. The distances and the cold and lack of infrastructure are tough challenges, but GCI is among the best of all vendors that we use for services to our students, faculties, and schools."
- Norman Eck, Ph.D., Superintendent, Northwest Arctic Borough School District
"GCI has been an instrumental partner in helping the Alaska Zoo develop a Long Distance Education Program. This program provides a venue for the Alaska Zoo to expand the reach of its Education classes through video conferencing and the ability to share Education Programs with students throughout our state."
- Patrick Lampi, Executive Director, Alaska Zoo
"GCI is a company with an exceptionally strong reputation for its expertise in building out networks in rough terrains and for their deep knowledge in all aspects of videoconferencing. Throughout my several years of partnering with GCI, I have come to learn that those who work within the education division are dedicated to the mission of bringing world-class opportunities to all learners across Alaska, including some of the most remote corners of the state."
- Ruth Blankenbaker, Former CEO, The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC)
"GCI has a long track record of being a friend to schools and libraries in the State of Alaska. Despite the unpredictable timing of E-rate funding, GCI's willingness to work with anchor institutions by appling discounts and handling E-rate invoicing is a welcome relief when staff is small. Steve Walker and his team at GCI deserve a big THANK YOU for finding ways to make the billing process understandable and manageable for the smallest of our schools and libraries."
- Valerie Oliver, Alaska USF/E-Rate Coordinator for Alaska Schools and Libraries