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Johnson Crossing Robotics Club teaches kids to solve problems

Building a robot can be hard. Just ask Johnson Crossing fifth-graders Austin Owen and Jase LaDay.

Once, they say, their remotely controlled robot inexplicably began doing the opposite of what it was told: if the students tried turning it right, it went left, and vice versa. After some troubleshooting, they found they had accidentally installed the robot’s “brain” — the computer that controls its movement — backward.

Now, Owen and LaDay have conquered the learning curve, and have moved on to adding enhancements and extra pieces to their robot, instead of getting tied up in figuring out the basics. They just finished adding new wheels.

“We got tracks on them and we added these cool spikes,” LaDay said. “I liked the look of ‘em.”

The students are part of the Robotics Club at Johnson Crossing that meets for an hour per week to build, enhance and play with robots. The club is the brainchild of Johnson Crossing fifth-grade reading, writing and science teacher Tammy Rensch. To Rensch, the club is more than just a fun outlet for kids who are interested in playing with robots. It allows kids of all abilities to get experience in creative problem solving, she said.

“It really hits the STEM — the science, technology, engineering and mathematics — it really hits all of those cores,” Rensch said. “They have to problem solve. Yes, if they’re really stuck, I’ll help them, but I really want them to see — can they figure out why their robot’s not working or what can (they) do to make it better?”

Rensch first thought of starting a robotics club after talking to colleagues about creating an outlet for the school’s High Ability Learners. Someone brought up the idea of robotics and Rensch started looking into it. She applied for and received funding through the Fremont Public Schools Foundation to launch the club, which has been up and running for two years.

While the initial concept was geared around High Ability Learners, Rensch decided to make the club open to everyone.

“We have a very wide range, of students with autism, special needs students and high ability and everything in between,” Rensch said. “It’s a great opportunity to be hands on, to be building.”

The club meets every Tuesday afternoon for an hour. The kids break up into teams, sharing a total of 15 robot-building kits which include instructions on how to construct the machines. Each team returns to the same kit every week to resume their progress. The teams spend different amounts of time on their robots, and spend their time either constructing the core machine or enhancing it.

At the club’s meeting this past Tuesday, about two dozen kids huddled off in groups. In a classroom, teams scoured through bins of Lego-sized mechanical pieces and colorful posters with illustrated assemblage instructions. Just outside the classroom there were occasional flurries of mechanical bumblebee-like whirring. Teams who had completed their robots were testing them, using remote controls to move shoebox-sized machines across the carpet and tiles. The robots had arms that lifted colored blocks and balls, tossing them into the air or stacking them up.

“This is pretty much where we’re at at this time of year, where some are still building and adding onto their robots, some have built, testing them out with stacking blocks, throwing balls,” Rensch said. “Some have a special kit called an add-on kit, that have extra pieces that they can add on, kind of create their own robot.”

Fifth-graders Lyndi Hanson and Brynne McDermott spent the past few sessions working on adding a trailer to the back of their robot. They tested it for the first time outside, with Rensch recording the moment for her Twitter account, which regularly showcases students’ progress. The robot’s mechanical arm lifted a green block in the air, releasing it so that it tumbled down along the back of the robot, landing into the newly attached square trailer. Both girls put their arms in the air in victory.

Hanson and McDermott designed the trailer themselves — no instructions required.

“We just thought of it,” Hanson said. “We finished the robot and we did the claw part, and we eventually just thought we should add a trailer to it.”

Inside the classroom, a team of fifth-graders — Harlan Wilcox, David Solorio, Savannah Uhlik and Sebastian Asbach — were building their robot. They lamented having had to troubleshoot some recent issues, including having accidentally used an incorrect piece. But they were all smiles.

“That’s the real challenge, and challenge is good,” said Wilcox, adding, “I like that we get to hang out with our friends. I just think it’s really awesome.”

At the end of each semester, Rensch holds competitions for the kids. The events include races, block-stacking contests and obstacle courses. There’s no prize — just bragging rights for now.

But Rensch is considering raising the stakes. She’s looked into the possibility of bringing her teams to an official event, but hasn’t decided on the right one.

“There are competitions in the area,” she said. “The difficult thing is I’ve never gone to a robotic competition myself, so I don’t know what kind of competition it is. There are some — I’m still trying to find one that I feel like we would be successful at, and I would have to secure funding to attend that competition.”

But in the meantime, Rensch sees the club as an opportunity for every kid at Johnson Crossing to learn something new.

“It really allows everybody to take part in something that interests them; some people, maybe their role here is just to watch or just to say you’re part of a club. Those who are really good with Legos at home are super successful here, and they may be more successful in robotics than they might be in a classroom,” she said.

“I’m probably learning right along with the kids,” she added.

Brent Wasenius / Courtesy Photo / Jerry Walker 

Nate Dillon (6) of the Fremont Tigers hockey club controls the puck while teammate Payton Siemer (9) looks on. The Tigers compete in the Omaha High School Hockey League.

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Learn-at-Lunch event focuses on Community Heart & Soul

Following several exploratory meetings that gave area residents insight into a program known as Community Heart & Soul, The May Brothers Building is set to host another event that will provide further information about the community development program.

The Learn-at-Lunch event will feature Director of Marketing at Orton Family Foundation David Weaver and is set to begin at 11:30 a.m. on Friday at The May Brothers Building in Downtown Fremont.

Community Heart & Soul is a resident-driven community development model that engages members of the community to help develop a more inclusive approach to community planning and development decisions.

The program was developed by the Orton Family Foundation, and has been implemented in 35 small cities and towns across the country.

According to information on the Orton Family Foundation’s website, the foundation’s focus centers on building stronger, healthier and more economically vibrant small cities and towns by developing a community development model that empowers residents to shape the future of their communities.

According to Glen Ellis, who has been leading the charge in bringing Community Heart & Soul to the Fremont community, one of the core elements of the program is finding out the community’s values.

“The way we are going to do that is through storytelling, letting people come and be a part of this movement and allowing them to tell their stories,” he said at an exploratory meeting in February. “Just really bringing people in and letting them feel like they are part of something, and allowing them to give input on why they loved Fremont back then, what they love about it now, and what they would want Fremont to look like in the future.”

David Weaver recently joined the staff at the Orton Family Foundation after leaving a marketing consulting firm that he founded known as AccessCMO. Prior to that he worked for Barkley, an advertising firm based in Kansas City, Missouri, where he provided strategic counsel to national brands including Hershey, Cargill, Applebee’s and Wawa.

“I grew up in a small town in Iowa where the message was ‘leave town if you want to succeed.’ I took that advice to heart and lived in major cities from Seattle to Dallas to New York,” Weaver said in a released statement. “Now I’ve come full circle. I realize that what I took with me from my small town is what equipped me in many ways for success. I decided it’s time to use my skills for good, and to create the positive change that I want to see in the world.”

Over the course of his career, Weaver has led and created campaigns for Nissan, T-Mobile, Clif Bar, American Airlines, Nestlé, adidas, Nationwide Insurance, among others. He regularly shares his insights at conferences and has been a speaker at SXSW, TED and multiple TEDx events.

The Learn-at-Lunch attendees are encouraged to bring their own food or purchase a light sack lunch available at The May Brothers Building. Weaver’s presentation will then begin at noon, and time for networking will follow at 12:30 p.m.

Those interested in attending the Learn-at-Lunch event are encouraged to RSVP on the Community Heart & Soul event page on Facebook at

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Fremont Parks and Recreation advisory board OKs use of parks for groups' activities

Fremont parks are off to a busy spring with archery, fishing and even a church service.

The Fremont Parks and Recreation Department advisory board approved requests for a variety of activities during its Tuesday night meeting.

Board members first OK’d a request by the Nebraska Traditional Archers to use Hormel Park, a half mile southwest of the city, from April 27-29 and Aug. 31-Sept. 2 for annual archery tournaments.

Kim Koski, parks and recreation department director, said this is a standard request.

“We’ve done it every year forever,” she said. “There was a concern that with the trail there — is that going to be an issue with walkers? But they do a great job closing off the trail and having it not open to walkers, as well as the bridge area.”

Vince Smith, who represented the archers at the meeting, noted the precautions taken and said the group handles security. A gate is closed to traffic.

“We appreciate the use of the park every year,” Smith added.

Dian Christensen Hillis asked that the group have someone on the trails so walkers wouldn’t cross Ridge Road to come into the park during the events.

“Yes ma’am,” Smith said, adding, “We flag them off with caution tape, danger tape, and then we’ve made sandwich board signs that we put right on the trail.”

Koski also said the parks department posts on its Facebook page that the trails are closed.

Between 105 and 250 archers have attended past tournaments, Smith said.

The board also approved use of the Johnson Park trail, grounds and shelter at Military Avenue and Johnson Road from 7:30 a.m. to noon June 9 for the annual “A Walk With Phyllis” fundraiser.

The walk pays tribute to Phyllis Gebhardt, who devoted her life to raising children and was a daycare provider in Fremont for three decades.

Before being diagnosed with an incurable form of brain cancer in 2014, Gebhardt began her days with a walk around Johnson Lake during which she prayed.

Since Gebhardt’s death in September 2015, her family has honored her memory and love for children and the Catholic faith by starting the Phyllis Gebhardt Memorial Scholarship Fund at Archbishop Bergan.

Turnout for the event has been good.

“They get great community support and it helps provide scholarships,” Koski said.

The board also approved the use of the Johnson Park Lake trail, shelter and grounds for the Eighth Annual Mike Baker Kids Fishing Day on June 16. Baker died in 2010.

“This was the way his wife chose to honor his memory,” Koski said. “He was a very avid fisherman, loved kids. She does a great job. Rain or shine, they will have kids out there fishing. It’s very well done.”

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission also participates.

“They do a great job, too,” said board member Dan Moran. “They have a big tank for some of the catches. They keep them in there, just for a couple hours so the kids can look at them and discuss the fish.”

“That event has really grown,” Christensen Hillis said.

The board approved use of John C. Fremont City Park and Shelter for an outdoor community service and gathering from 10:30-11:30 a.m. April 1 — Easter Sunday — by Cornerstone Church.

Moran pointed out that the church is meeting in the Fremont Public Schools administration building at the corner of Ninth and Main streets, but cannot use it that day and so was hoping to have the service in the park at Ninth and Broad streets.

In other business, Koski told the board that the city is looking at a master fee schedule for a variety of things from building permits to dog tags.

Fremont Assistant City Administrator Shane Wimer, with direction from Fremont City Administrator Brian Newton, has given departments the task of looking at fees and charges to see how they align with other communities the size of Fremont.

This will be examined annually so departments will be on the same fee schedule at budget time.

“The plan is to have gradual increases each year instead of not raising anything for five years and then have 30 percent increases,” Koski said.

More information will be provided as it becomes available.

Koski also said Arbor Day is set for April 27 and Mosaic, which is across the street from the city park, has expressed interest in donating a tree.

“I’m thinking that’s where we’ll have Arbor Day,” Koski said, referring to the city park.

Mosaic is a faith-based organization that assists people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Koski said Mosaic staffers take their clients to the city park on nice days and wanted to show their thanks. Fremont City Arborist Mark Luther is working with Mosaic to select a species of tree.

Nate Schwanke, recreation superintendent, talked about the 2018 Summer Activity Guide brochure that came out in Saturday’s Fremont Tribune and which also will go to schools this week.

The guide provides information about times, dates and fees for programs such as Tiny Tots and Kids Park Play, youth and adult tennis, baseball and softball and swimming opportunities offered via the Fremont Parks and Recreation Department.

It also offers data on financial assistance. In addition, it has information about the summer reading program at Keene Memorial Library, Concerts in the Park and the Citywide Pet Show.

Schwanke said the department is taking over the adult slow-pitch softball program for the summer. It previously was contracted out.

He is planning on about 12 men’s teams and at least six women’s. There will be no mixed teams.

“We run the church softball league (which is mixed) as well,” he said.

Schwanke also said the Fremont Parks and Recreation’s co-ed adult volleyball league had its last night of the regular season on Tuesday with tournaments starting in the next couple weeks.

This year, there were seven teams — two more than the previous year.

The next parks board meeting, which is open to the public, is set for April 3.