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IT Systems Administrator Matt Lee Among District's Volunteers at Saturday's Robotics Contest

                By day—or night--Matt Lee serves as the Information Technology Systems Administrator for Cleburne ISD. On Saturday, he will be volunteering his IT skills as a Robotics Referee at the FIRST Lego League Final Championship.

                More than 40 teams from Amarillo to Waco have qualified for the robotics finals, which will begin at 9 a.m. in the Jeff D. Cody Arena at Cleburne High School.  These top teams from public and private schools and community programs across Texas will be guiding LEGO robots they have built and programmed through a series of missions.

The Superpowered Robot Game with an “energy” theme, selected for the 2022-2023 season, will have upper elementary and middle school teams, led by their designated technicians, maneuvering their robotic devices across a tabletop mapped field, where they will collect “energy units” from different sources, distributing them to where the energy will be stored or consumed.

The tasks within the mission must be completed by the robots within 2.5 minutes. Reflecting real-world operations, the tasks addressed by the student-programmed robots range from moving energy units around on a solar farm to inserting a recharging unit into a hybrid car.   Each team is engaged in three rounds of play, with points awarded each time.

Cleburne has been hosting FIRST Lego League regional qualifier competitions for three years. Saturday’s contest will be the first robotics championship to be hosted—and the largest. Lee has been among the volunteers since the first contest held in Cleburne in 2020. After assisting behind the scenes with technology support, the 2009 CHS graduate decided to up his involvement in applying with the national STEM-focused program to become a referee.

                “I wish they had this when I was in school,” Lee said. “I’m glad this is now available to students—but volunteers are needed to conduct the competitions. Being a referee looked like way more fun than watching from the sidelines. But it’s harder than it looks. These teams have been prepping all year for competition and I don’t want to let them down or make an error as a referee. It can be a little stressful when a kid is looking into my face waiting on a decision or to see the points I’ve given his or her team. At the end of my first contest, I thought, ‘Okay, I can do this. I think I’m pretty good at this.’”

                “As a potential referee, you are provided with tons of materials covering the various scenarios in the competition, along with a manual and lots of videos to review,” he said. “We have a referee rubric, including the points assessment, that covers the 14-15 challenges to be completed in a mission. During the match, I watch the interaction between the team and their technicians at the table and their robot as it tackles multiple tasks.”

                In addition to showcasing their technical skills, each group of competitors is awarded points based on their teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance and poise under pressure.

                “We are looking for teamwork and respect for each other and their competitor,” Lee said. “The kids you see at these contests are driven. They want to do well, and they don’t want to let each other down.”

                After each round, the referee reviews the points with the team, to see what they missed, where they achieved—and to give some encouragement.

                “They leave the table talking about what they can do to improve or make a new plan before the next round,” Lee said. “There are times I wish I could do more. I had a team that kept getting stuck on a mission. They were very composed and determined to complete the task—but I so wanted to jump in and help. As referees, we are allowed to be encouraging, to give them some positive words. It’s all about the kids and their experience in this competition. We want them to have fun.”

                “I see myself in these kids and the confidence and camaraderie they have in solving a challenge together,” he said. “It’s pretty neat. In my heart, I want to see them all succeed, and everything go according to plan. Inside, I’m cheering for them—and hurting when things go wrong.”

                Lee also enjoys the energy and pageantry of the contests. Teams are easily identified by their tricked-up science attire, matching hats and neon shirts. They parade together to and from the competition area, often with signs and banners.

                “I’m always nervous and excited before a contest,” he said. “But the second I walk in, it’s like the IT version of Vegas. The kids are so excited, and you feed off that energy.”

                Lee’s service as a Robotics Ref is one of several areas in which the 32-year-old lends his time. He has served as a volunteer with East Cleburne Community Center since 2018, and has also been involved with Christmas in Action, United Way Day of Caring, Buffalo Creek Cleanup and the Tour de Goatneck Bike Race.

                “Matt is always willing to give back to kids and the district,” Mike Wallace, CISD executive director of technology said. “He has a passion for technology and is always wanting to help in that area. You can tell he has a lot of fun at the contests, listening to kids and observing their efforts. He’s good at his role as a referee.”

                For more information on Saturday’s FIRST Lego League event, and related volunteer opportunities, contact Wheat Middle School Robotics teacher Gwenda Davis: