Reinvention is the name of the game at the FIRST LEGO League Qualifying Tournament at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands on a chilly Saturday morning in early December.
Everywhere in sight, teams of elementary and middle school students prepare for a gauntlet of challenges and judges who will score them on everything from the design and performance of their rover-like Lego robots to their teamwork.
Waiting anxiously for its first challenge is the Panther Pack from Morton Magnet Middle School, seven boys wearing matching red T-shirts, black bowler hats and satchels holding team pins they'll trade with other kids. Over the past few months, they have reinvented themselves from individuals into a collective hoping to score well enough to qualify for the state tournament in February.
They are coached by a 36-year-old named Scott Wiley, who wears the same uniform plus one dynamic accoutrement peeking out of his bag: A robot he calls MoTronic that springs to life every so often with a series of head motions and gestures that prove irresistibly cool to any kid within sight.
Wiley is proudly showing off his creation when he finds another team in distress, their robot malfunctioning. He rushes over to diagnose the problem.
This is the reinvented Wiley. Just a few years ago, he was stuck in reverse. He felt lost, disposable.
Today, people know his name. They call him over for help. Today, he carries a holstered robot. He is needed.
“It was just a roundabout way how it happened,” he says.
The McNuggets had changed.
That was one thing that took Wiley some getting used to. It was largely the same job as the one he held in high school, but small things were different.
For instance, McDonald's now served cappuccinos. The machine that spat them out confounded Wiley, but most other things came back naturally.
Then, one day, a customer asked Wiley how many chicken nuggets came in the different combos. A co-worker had to correct him, and Wiley was reminded, in the code of chicken nugget combos, how much time was passing him by.
Here's what happened between that shift in nugget numbers.
Wiley graduated from Omaha Roncalli High School, spent a few years at Peru State College, got married. He landed a job in Omaha at Oriental Trading Company. After eight years, he moved to PayPal, taking customer calls, before getting laid off in December 2008. He spent nine months looking for something new, but his search for a career eventually took a back seat to his need for money. He got re-hired by his old McDonald's manager. Later, he got another job at Toys R Us. He was in his 30s. He wondered what had become of his life.
Then another small failure led to the moment that set him on a new course.
Wiley applied for a third job as a sales clerk at Kohl's and got rejected. But the experience of not getting the job led to a conversation with his mother, a teacher at Morton, who told him she worked with a woman who had managed a Kohl's in the past. Maybe she could find out what Wiley had done wrong in his interview.
And this is how Scott Wiley came to meet Gwyn Williams.
Sure enough, Williams looked into the situation. She offered Wiley two options.
She could pull some strings and probably get him a job at Kohl's.
Or he could come work for her. At the time, Williams oversaw Morton's after-school program and needed someone to run the computer lab.
Wiley chose option two. He went to work for Williams.
And Williams, who never simply hires someone, went to work for Wiley.
As the program director for the nonprofit Collective for Youth, Williams oversees the development of out-of-school programming at 25 OPS elementary and middle schools. She works with the schools, site directors, various community partners and providers (such as Wiley) who give students something to do between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. each school day.
She came to the job as a former site director herself. She knows what goes into giving students quality programming. And she knows part of that is mentoring the mentors.
“I always come from a place of love,” she says, even when that love dictates a kick in the pants. “I want to see people grow.”
She managed a Kohl's for six years, leading more than 170 employees in that time. She discovered the secret to management is getting to know what motivates a person.
Some people need to know there's an opportunity for advancement. Others want structure. Some need added responsibilities.
In Wiley, she saw a motivation shared by his students.
“Being accepted motivates Scott,” she says. “Being part of something bigger than himself motivates Scott.”
She looked at Wiley and saw kids for whom athletics held little, if any, interest. The kids who might not be the most social at school. Kids who were interested in math and science, even if they didn't categorize their interests under those subjects just yet.
“If I can make you successful, you can show kids how to do it,” she thought. “Because you are that kid.”
First, Williams assigned Wiley to the computer lab. Then she learned about a certain interest of his — “I am what we call an adult fan of Lego,” Wiley says — and told him to place a team of Morton students in a Lego robotics competition with only a few weeks to prepare. The next year, she wanted two teams. She pushed him beyond his comfort zone. Made him speak in public, talk to parents. Crawl out of his shell.
“You can talk nerd language to me, because I know it,” she says. “But you can't talk to (others) like that.”
The mechanics of the job made sense to Wiley. He knew Lego. He knew the robot programming involved. But working with kids presented new challenges.
“There are times I'm still getting used to it,” he says.
Sometimes, he says, he leaves opportunities to teach in the classroom and only realizes it later. He sees kids get discouraged when a robot doesn't do what they want. He sees them take failure as an end rather than a step in the right direction.
“You've got to instill in the kids, 'No, sometimes you fail, you have to go back and see what you did wrong,' ” he says. “Literally, with robotics, that's a lot of it. 'What did I do wrong?' ”
About halfway into the FIRST LEGO League Tournament, things start to go wrong. Or at least become a little hectic.
In quick succession, the Panther Pack will show its robot design to a pair of judges in one room, give a team presentation in another and navigate the robot across a table-top obstacle course in the gymnasium. Also, they're getting hungry. And antsy. And now another couple of teams need Wiley's help with their robots, leading him to call his wife to deliver a backup laptop as soon as possible.
All of these things are on his mind when the Panther Pack presents its robot design in a hushed room and his cellphone goes off to let him know the laptop has arrived. Then there's a knock on the door from one of the teams needing help. Then MoTronic wakes from his pre-programmed slumber and launches into a series of bleeping gestures.
The presentation goes well — “They all knew it really well,” Wiley says — but afterward he worries the commotion might have distracted the judges.
“I certainly don't want to be the thing that dings them,” he says.
It doesn't help that he didn't sleep the night before, he says. Right now he needs to be alert. He needs energy. He looks at the clock and sees the team has 15 minutes until its next assignment. For the first time in an hour, he relaxes some.
“Just enough time for me to have a Rice Krispies treat,” he says.
There were times early on when Wiley struggled to communicate with his students, and his own school experiences came rushing back to him.
“I was always one who was more friends with the teachers than the other students,” he says.
Then Williams said something changed everything.
Look at the kids, she said. “They're all aspects of you, Wiley.”
She was so right he nearly short-circuited.
“Every single one of these kids had some aspect of my personality,” he says. “None of them were exactly like me, but there was always something. This one might procrastinate, this one might be so interested in, like, “Star Wars,” that they don't pay attention to anything else, that sort of thing. This one is smart but doesn't do their homework because they're not interested in it. … All slightly different versions of me at this age.”
It comes through in their banter, Wiley's humor being a refined 2.0 version of theirs: sarcasm mixed with obscure factoids, like how bull sharks are more dangerous to humans than great whites.
Kris Atkins, a parent volunteer for the Panther Pack over the last few years, sees it herself.
“He's more confident,” she says. “The kids and he — they get each other.”
In time, Wiley began to see the new possibilities for himself. He started offering his Lego robotics know-how to other schools working with the Boys & Girls Clubs. He quit his jobs at McDonald's and Toys R Us.
He began to think about this new direction as a career. He created his own educational business. Wiley Robotics.
The Panther Pack is just about to present its project when Williams arrives at the tournament to see how things are going — a moment Wiley has been waiting for.
“Gwyn is like a wizard,” he says. “She arrives precisely when she means to.”
Williams waves, hugs, laughs and jokes her way through the room. She sits next to Wiley as the Panther Pack delivers its “Shark Tank”-inspired skit revolving around a theoretical product they've invented to protect homes from wildfires.
Then she follows the group into a crowded gymnasium, where other teams run their robots through a series of obstacles.
A few feet away from her, all seven members of the Panther Pack team stand shoulder to shoulder, taking in the action. They don't know it yet, but their scores for the day will qualify them to move on to the state tournament. Wiley stands right there with them, MoTronic quiet by his side.
Williams stands back, scans the gym and smiles.
“See these kids?” she says. “They belong!”