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The City Journals

FLL volunteers give energy, enthusiasm to regional competition

Mar 05, 2019 01:54PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High School robotics coach Clief Castleton volunteers each year at Albion Middle School’s FLL regional qualifier as the emcee but makes it a point to put students at ease with jokes and dancing. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals.com

Elementary and middle school students from Salt Lake and Utah counties brought robots, posters and fun hats as they anxiously awaited to present their projects and show off their robotics talents to a host of judges at Canyons School District’s recent FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — LEGO League regional competition.

Each of the 20 competing teams that day were judged on their ability to demonstrate positive teamwork, explain how they built their robot, demonstrate programs created to make their robot perform specific tasks in a timed setting, and propose a solution to solve this year’s theme of “Into Orbit.”

As the competition to reach the northern state championship stretched into hours, student competitors were kept upbeat by some of the 50 volunteers who gave them encouraging remarks and smiles.

Some of those who were giving high-fives were Hillcrest High School students who participate in the FIRST Robotics competition and volunteer as part of their outreach to provide service.

“As with most volunteer efforts, the kids are learning to think outside themselves,” Hillcrest High robotics coach Clief Castleton said. He said it does help to build his program, which in its first season won the Rookie All-Star Award, allowing the team to advance to compete at the world championships. “FIRST does rely heavily on volunteers. At every level and in all positions, volunteers in FIRST see what the result is for the kids who participate. Those volunteers that are in from industry or higher education are training their future employees and students.”

Castleton, who has received the FIRST Outstanding Volunteer Award at the high school level, is one of the volunteers who stands out at the qualifier held every year at Albion Middle School. As the emcee, he is found not only announcing the teams as their robots take center stage to compete, but also informing, educating and entertaining, said fellow volunteer and tech team member Katie Blunt, who matches up a song to every team’s creative name.

“He’s the glue on the floor, not only hyping people up, but pumps up the energy as he dances, sings, tells jokes and introduces teams,” she said. “He makes it a point to get to know about every team and their players, their robot, the work they put into it and shares it with the crowd; at the same time, he is giving signals to the tech team from countdown to starting the timer. It isn’t a one-day job for him. He does his research, finding out about all the robot challenges every year and knowing which missions are the ones that reward the big points.”

Tournament director Mila Gleason has counted on Castleton and his students to volunteer every year.

“We greatly appreciate his and his students’ knowledge as they understand the technical parts and the pressure these kids put on themselves, and Clief offsets it as he’s the king of dad jokes. He just asked why are robots good dancers and got the crowd laughing or moaning with the answer — they have good algorhythms.”

Knights of the Legonian Order (Albion Middle) coach Barry Johnson appreciates Castleton’s passion.

“I like his enthusiasm for the kids,” Johnson said. “He learns every kid’s name and their robot’s name and makes it personable, so they relax and it’s not stressful. It’s apparent that it’s what he loves, really loves.”

Johnson’s first-year co-coach, Tim Barber, said that as the hours of competition wear down, Castleton’s vivacity remains constant.

“His energy directly contributes to the energy of the event,” Barber said. “It’s a big part of the fun of this event.”

Volunteering alongside him is head referee Mark Fellows.

“Clief’s energy and his ability to relate with kids sets this tournament apart from others that aren’t as engaging or fun,” he said. “While he’s dancing and singing, he’s talking about the names of the missions and making sure everything is running smoothly. “

Midvale Middle School competitor Naoto Robinson said he hopes to continue his interest in robotics at Hillcrest High.

“Mr. Castleton makes it exciting here as he dances around and tells jokes among the announcements,” he said. “It makes it more fun for everyone.”

Gleason said she doesn’t need to give a script or cues to Castleton.

“I can count on him,” she said. “There’s never a dull moment. He’s entertaining, keeping people on schedule, providing commentary, making sure everyone is following the rules — and he wears a hat he makes every year to match the theme. And it’s not just here, he is a mentor to a lot of teams in the area, his program provides a camp in the summer, he’s always helping others find funding or robot competition tables or whatever they need. He is Canyons School District’s jewel.”

Why does Castleton volunteer?

“I volunteer because it’s fun and it’s needed. When people ask, I try to help as much as possible,” he said. “Plus, it’s a total blast.”