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“Mad Skills” at the Controls: Stafford Teen Leads Team to State Robotics Championship

When Nick Butler takes the controls of his Stafford County high school team’s competition robot, he’s bringing literally a lifetime of experience to the task. At the age of 16 months, Nick was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Type 2, a hereditary disease that causes weakness and wasting of the voluntary muscles in the arms and legs of infants and children. Now 16, the high school junior drives a sophisticated robotic wheelchair to pursue an active life, and is aiming at a career in mechanical and electrical engineering.

On his journey so far, Nick became one of the original members of Brooke Point High School’s FIRST Tech Challenge robotics team. And as co-captain and the team’s primary robot “driver,” Nick has helped to steer BP Robotics to the FTC Virginia State Championship, scheduled for Saturday, March 2 at Richmond’s Arthur Ashe Center.

Team members say they’re excited about the contest, in large part because Nick has mad skills at the controls. Nick doesn’t like to brag. “I’ve learned a lot of patience in my own life, and have learned the importance of accepting trial and error as a way of getting things done,” says Butler. “And dealing successfully with frustration is one of the things that I’ve been able to carry over into my membership on the robotics team.”

That attitude is a good fit with the philosophy Kimberly Whitehouse, the business and computer science teacher who coaches the BP Robotics team. “My method is to let team members try things on their own and fail and succeed,” says Whitehouse. “That’s the heart of engineering. You have to let these kids learn first-hand that every idea won’t work, but that it’s important in the real world to keep trying and not to give up.”

“Nick’s can-do spirit animates our team. He’s kind of the glue that keeps the team together,” adds Whitehouse. FIRST is a program that seeks to get young people fired up about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and career opportunities. Nick Butler didn’t need much convincing. “I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with things,” he says.

“Nick’s leadership is vital,” says teammate Meghan Hamannwright. “He’s really good about bringing us all together, especially when we need it.”

Adds teammate Anthony Yagelski, “Nick brings creativity and ideas to the team. He also brings a lot of inspiration and courage and perseverance to the team.”

Nick Butler contends it’s a two-way street. “We’ve all grown closer together, almost a family of sorts. Being able to work together, we’ve done well learning to solve problems. I’ve learned a lot about problem solving and teamwork.” 

Team coach Whitehouse sums it up, “It’s an honor and privilege to watch these kids grow.”

Learn more at virginiafirst.org

Story by Jim Babb for VirginiaFIRST Robotics

Photos by Bill Sigafoos for VirginiaFIRST Robotics

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