According to Ben Hackett ’08, the key to coaching a successful youth robotics team is one simple word: yes.

“You just have to say yes to the students a lot,” said Hackett. “Can we order this so we can build this? Can we try this?...You have to say yes even if you’re pretty sure what they are suggesting is going to fail. They have to try. That’s how they will learn.”

Hackett is a credible source--in the four years he has been coaching the team at Cross County in Stromsburg, Nebraska, his students have won numerous competitions, including the state title this year. Some have even traveled to participate in international competitions. 

Hackett is building on a solid foundation laid by another York alum, Ken Booth ‘01. Booth started the team in 2010. Hackett took over the program when Booth left to become the assistant principal of York Elementary School in 2015. Today Booth is in his first year as principal at Centennial Elementary School in Utica, Nebraska.

“I was pretty nervous about taking over the team,” said Hackett. “I had never done anything with robotics before.” Booth assured him it would be easy because of the quality of the kids and parent volunteers. “It’s not like sports. I don’t have to be the expert or come up with drills. I’m not teaching them. I’m learning with them.” Hackett was amazed when he showed up for the first practice and the students came in, grabbed their materials and started working. They didn’t need direction, only occasional assistance. “If they say, ‘I don’t how how to do this,’ then you help them...We’ll sit down and Google things and watch YouTube videos to try to figure it out together,” said Hackett.

The hardest part about coaching a robotics team is just keeping up with the kids, said Hackett. He is constantly learning new technologies and skills. “The students are insatiable. They text me on the weekends about robotics. They have their parents open up the robotics lab during our off hours so they can keep working,” he said.

PictureBen with one of his students in China for the 2018 World Championship
Currently the lab is open for six hours a week, before and after school, manned by Hackett, parents, volunteers, and other educators. Robotics competitions run November to April, but students begin working on their robots in July, spending hours in the lab every week before the school year even starts. Hackett noted that the success of the robotics program is due to the great support from parents and other volunteers, as well as his assistant coach Elliot Yungdahl,  who keep the lab open when he can’t be present. Sometimes it’s a challenge for him to manage work and family life. “It’s much more than a 40-hour work week, but it’s a program I really love,” he said. “I would have done this program when I was their age if I’d had the opportunity.”

Hackett recently finished a master’s degree in Middle Grades Education from Liberty University. In addition to coaching robotics, he teaches middle school and high school science at Cross County. 

The robots Hackett’s teams build are made from wood and plastic pieces constructed in their lab, as well as from parts from VEX Robotics, which also organizes the robotics competitions. According to the VEX website, the world faces an unprecedented need for new innovators, thinkers, and problem solving leaders. At current rates there are not enough students choosing STEM-related paths to meet the global demand. VEX seeks to interest more students in STEM fields through fun, educational robotic activities. This mission has been carried out in Hackett’s students’ lives, as several of his students have gone on to study science in college--one recently was awarded a prestigious scholarship for young scientists at University of Nebraska Omaha.

While Hackett would love for all of his students to pursue science as a career, the robotics competitions are valuable even for those that don’t. The activity teaches them teamwork, communication, perseverance, commitment, and creative problem solving--skills that will benefit them in any line of work. 

Every year there is a new ‘game’ that the robots will play during competition. This year it involves turning over bottle caps in a timed heat (the opposing team’s robot is trying to turn them back over) and parking on a platform. Sometimes the robots tussle to get into the highest scoring spot on the platform, but that’s as close as it gets to Rock’em Sock’em Robots. “It’s very exciting,” said Hackett.

Attending the competition is as much about learning as it is about winning. Hackett says his students watch other teams closely and see what is working or not working for them. After a competition they can’t wait to get back to the robotics lab to incorporate new ideas into their own builds. 

This year Hackett expects to send two teams (nine students) to China to participate in the world championship in April. He will likely not travel with the team this year, as his wife Natasha (Byrd ’13) is due with the couple’s fourth child about the same time as the competition. Cross County will only pay for the students up to the state level, so Hackett is also helping to raise the money needed to send the students to China (about $3,000 per student). He’s seeking sponsors and planning “Chili for China” fundraising dinners. Through it all, he recognizes the support of the school and the surrounding towns. “We have great support from our community,” said Hackett. “The whole village is behind us.”

Coach Ben Hackett (second from L) poses with one of his winning teams and their robot after a recent competition.