Robotics coach named best in Rhode Island
Fifth-graders Adam DiBiase, John Schott and Casey Egan had advanced to the finals and were ready to make their first of three runs at the state championship. Their coach, Hubbard, watched intently as they tried to manipulate the robot to follow their commands. However, the robot had other plans.
“They came out in front of the crowd,” said Hubbard, “and they scored zero.”
When the boys returned to the sideline, Hubbard asked what they thought went wrong. After brainstorming, the Bearded Builders tinkered with the computer codes, fiddled with the launching method and made a few modifications to the robot.
“They came out and had a perfect run,” Hubbard said. “Here’s a group of fifth-graders in the midst of a competition with a large audience, and they performed poorly, worked out their problems, came out and had a perfect run. That’s the kind of problem solving that is the highlight of the whole thing for me.”
Hubbard has lived in town for 30 years and has guided the robotics curriculum in the Jamestown schools since 2001. A native of Fairfield, Conn., he studied mechanical engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and has a master’s degree in industrial management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also was a submarine officer with the U.S. Navy.
Following a second-place finish Jan. 16 at the state championship, Hubbard added most outstanding coach to his resume. He was recognized by the FIRST Lego League, which governs robotics tournaments around the world.
“I’ve been at this a long time, but I really appreciate the progress the kids make,” he said. “This business of experiential learning is very rewarding. It’s nice to be recognized beyond that.”
Hubbard did not know he was nominated for the award, but Mary Johnson, of Rhode Island Students for the Future, said he was chosen for his enthusiastic commitment to Jamestown students.
“He’s been the mastermind and heart behind all of it,” she said.
According to Johnson, Hubbard’s leadership has made robotics sustainable in Jamestown. The program has grown from a single team to seven teams, and Hubbard personally recruited the other coaches and mentors.
“He really coaches from a place where the kids are very gracious and they’re helpful to other kids,” she said. “They compete really hard, but they don’t do that by being competitive in a bad way.”
Hubbard said he owes the team’s success to the community, the parents and the assistant coach, Furhana DiBiase. He also noted several “exceptional” former students who are now in the midst of successful careers. “I’m pleased to have had a little tiny part in their development,” he said.
Despite the competition, Hubbard keeps his students rooted in the national mission: have fun and play well.
“If you do both of those things, you win your share,” he said.
The Bearded Builders won the 2015 state championship, but lost last month’s title to their in-town rivals, the Robowolves, a neighborhood team coached by Michael Junge. Out of 40 teams, Jamestown students seized the top two spots.
DiBiase, Schott and Egan, now eighth-graders, are the Bearded Builders’ three core members. Ben Jennings and Lekha Sapers also are on the team.
The FIRST Lego League selects a theme for its competitions each year. This year’s theme was trash management. The Bearded Builders focused on reusing plastic toys. They discovered acrylonitrile butadiene-styrene was not accepted by some recycling plants, but it’s the same plastic used in 3-D printing. So the team created a device that melted down a plastic toy — in this case, a Lego Technic robotic shaft — into a 3-D printer filament by pushing it through a glue gun. They also used a food processor to chop the plastic into granules.
After earning an invitation to the North American championship at California’s Legoland in May 2015, Hubbard hoped their second-place finish would garner another invite. He received the good news earlier this week. Right now, the team and their families are preparing for the trip by improving their robot and fundraising.
“I asked the team to take a couple of weeks off before preparing for California, but they are pushing me to get started right away,” Hubbard said. “We really do learn together.”