Working the Muscles Between Your Ears—Joe Gillen, Co-founder of Sylvania STEM Center (on FIRST LEGO League Robotics)

. August 31, 2018.
The family that STEMs together, stays together. Here the Gillen family, Sydney (13), Nichole, Bailey (16), Joe, and Emily (11) share a smile after the FIRST Tech Challenge competition that qualified Bailey’s team for state competition.
The family that STEMs together, stays together. Here the Gillen family, Sydney (13), Nichole, Bailey (16), Joe, and Emily (11) share a smile after the FIRST Tech Challenge competition that qualified Bailey’s team for state competition.

Healthy competition, working as a team, and losing gracefully are important traits for children to learn and experience, qualities that will carry them through their school years and into the workforce.

But what about children who aren’t athletes or have no interest in sports? Outside of athletics, extracurricular options are often limited. Joe Gillen recognized this quandary with his own children, and he, along with Tom and Crystal Burnworth, whom Gillen dubs “the brains behind it,”, formed Sylvania STEM.

Sylvania STEM

Sylvania STEM provides extracurricular science, technology, engineering, and math education through a joint partnership with FIRST LEGO league (FLL) programs.

Gillen explains, “FIRST robotics is based on a sports model, and 4th through 8th grade has competitive aspects.. Dean Kamen, billionaire philanthropist and inventor, saw [children’s] love for sports celebrities, and how they knew every name and statistic, but they couldn’t tell you a popular scientist or engineer.”

“Kamen then funded the 1989 FIRST competitive robotic organization,” Gillen continues. “The kids are on teams just like sports, up to 10 people, and the team is made up of all ages, both boys and girls. They are presented with a challenge every year, and that includes the robotic challenge and the research portion. Last year’s theme was all about water and how to develop an innovative solution using robotics.”

“One of my favorites quotes from Dean Kamen is, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Every child on every team can ‘go pro’ in robotics or science engineering. Less than 1% go pro in sports.”

Core values

Gillen adds, “As a parent, what really sold me was the FIRST core values; [they’re] woven into every aspect of the program. Basically, have fun, and [practice] gracious professionalism. Compete as hard as you can, but never ever at the expense of another team. If you have a problem and need a part, you can go to any other team and ask for help, and the teams will drop what they’re doing and help you. Really—just because that’s how the program is built. You learn teamwork and dealing with defeat and working with other people.”

Commited to the cause

In FIRST Robotics, Gillen asserts there is something for every child. While every member on the team must know about the robot and how it works, not all kids need to physically build the robot. Some children focus on the design work, others on outreach, and still others on computer programming.

Gillen spends hours with FIRST every week, and all of that time is completely volunteer work—he is not paid. He comes home every day around 4:30—he works full-time as an IT Help Desk Administrator at the University of Toledo—eats a quick dinner with his family, and then they’re all off to the Center.

All three of his children, Bailey (16), Sydney (13) and Emily (11), help out and volunteer, and they also participate on their own FIRST teams. During a slow stretch of the season, Gillen is “only” at the center 3 to 4 days a week. When the teams are preparing for competition, they can be there every day, including weekends.

What’s your favorite activity to do with your family? Robotics, that’s what we do.
Best holiday memory from when you were a kid? Tradition of going to different family’s houses for the holiday.
What’s your go-to activity when you have a few minutes to yourself? I don’t usually, but woodworking.
Describe your life in five words or less. Crazy busy, technologically-driven, volunteering.
What is your favorite Toledo hangout? Sylvania STEM Center!
Describe Toledo. Hardworking and dynamic.

sylvaniastem.org
3315 Centennial Road, Unit H
Sylvania, OH 43560
stemcenter@sylvaniastem.org