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Don’t Be Fooled By Appearances: These Guys Know That Science Matters

Your first reaction to the photo might be, “Who ARE these guys? Isn’t that one on the left a little old to be sporting a NASA logo on this shirt? And, what’s with the wig?”

Well, the fellow on the left earned his NASA patch. He is a retired space systems engineer and a veteran of the first successful landing on Mars who traded-in his pocket protector for a tie-dye t-shirt and a sequined hat. The one on the right is a self-described “redneck trucker” who transported high explosives for the U.S. Navy and now dons a shocking blue wig in certain public settings.

What they have in common is the rejuvenating effect of being around bright, motivated teenagers and the satisfaction of knowing that they still make a difference.

Jim Young (space guy) and Ken Poole (bomb hauler) are mentors to a FIRST Robotics team, the “NASA Knights,” sponsored by the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton and made up of high school students from throughout eastern Virginia.

Initially, both were drawn to the team by family. Young’s granddaughter and Poole’s son were team members. But after the kids graduated and moved on several years ago, Young and Poole stayed on as volunteer mentors. High school robotics had simply gotten in their blood.

The appeal for them was more than the spectacle watching of student-designed, built and operated robots going head to head in high-energy events, though both admit the contests are a lot of fun.

“Kids learn to be real people in this program,” says Poole. “Some come in not knowing the difference between a wrench and a screwdriver, but they leave knowing how to solve problems, work with people and use everything they’ve got. That’s not something you learn from books, and it’s frankly inspirational to watch.”

“This has been a kind of rebirth for me,” says the 83-year-old Young, who retired from NASA in 1986. “I get tremendous satisfaction knowing that I’m involved with building the future by helping young people learn to love science and work as a team. But I’m also proud when I think that these very students may one day invent life-saving technologies, or build and pilot our next generations of robotic spacecraft.”

Team members say the feeling is mutual. 

Katie Mortgensen, who has been involved in team robotics since middle school, agrees. “I’m grateful that these men come in on their own time, take us under their wing and give us real-world advice. Mr. Young has taught me about engineering, and Mr. Poole has taught me about safety in the workplace. And that blue wig is awesome!”

About the wig: It looks a like something from a rock and roll nightmare, but Poole gamely wears it in front of crowds at FIRST robotics contests. Poole explains that he lost a dare. He was trying to get team supporters to make more noise in the stands and one challenge led to another. Now, the shoulder length blue hairpiece is his trademark.

“It’s not the usual fashion statement you’d expect for a guy who had a 31-year career transporting bombs,” says Poole. “I’d think twice before wearing it into a truck stop, I can tell you that!”

“Ken and Jim are exemplary role models for the students. If I could have put an ad in the newspaper to get somebody in this position I couldn’t have picked two better people; we seriously lucked out,” says Joanne Talmage, team leader and faculty member at New Horizons Regional Education Centers, where the NASA Knights are based.

“The robots we build and use in competition each year are just the physical product of what we do. Our team is an enterprise, with students working on all kinds of jobs, including project management, fund raising and community relations. Teams can use mentors with all sorts of backgrounds. You don’t have to be an engineer to make a difference,” adds Talmage.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a program with the ambitious goal of promoting the pursuit of science and engineering in a popular culture that prefers to idolize sports and celebrity. 

The program offers age-appropriate programs for school kids from kindergarten through high school, and there are about 800 FIRST teams affiliated with schools and community groups across Virginia. Most program activities revolve around the school year, so teams are actively seeking volunteers and mentors now.  

To learn about FIRST teams for high school aged students, go to www.virginiafirst.org. For information about FIRST teams for elementary and middle school students, visit www.vadcfll.org.

Article by Jim Babb for VirginiaFIRST

Photos by Bill Sigafoos/VirginiaFIRST

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