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accidental mentor helps teams excel

KC Star – by Sara Beane

Ron Gier of Leawood is a self-described evening and weekend mechanic. By day, he works as vice president of human resources operations at Sprint. But after hours, he likes to indulge his hobby of tinkering with machines by serving as a coach and mentor for robotics teams in the Blue Valley School District.

For the last nine years, Gier has served as a coach for the district’s FIRST Robotics program . At a recent board of education meeting, Gier was recognized as a 2015 Friends of Education honoree in the Community Leader category.

Other Friends of Education honorees included Julie Brewer, Dr. Patty Logan, Mike Dusselier, Concrete Flatwork Excavating Company Inc. and Mainstreet Credit Union.

Gier’s path to becoming a coach and mentor for the district’s robotics program has been purely accidental. He doesn’t have a formal engineering background. But in 2007, Gier got a call from his oldest son asking for help with his robotics project at Blue Valley North High School. Since Gier raced go-karts as a hobby, his son knew he would probably be able to help.

“They were working on chain drive systems,” Gier said. “I had experience with chain drives so I came and helped and thought I would be working for an hour. And nine years later I’m still helping.”

And so began a beautiful friendship between Gier and the Blue Valley School District. In 2010, the Blue Valley School District opened the building for their Center for Advanced Professional Studies, or CAPS, Program and all of the district’s robotics teams moved under one roof.

During the board of education meeting honoring Gier, Blue Valley School District officials praised him for dedicating countless hours to the FIRST Robotics program, even opening the doors of Sprint as a satellite location for the program in its early days. He is credited with propelling the CAPS robotics program to a higher level.

CAPS engineering instructor Dan Ritter has been by Gier’s side since the early days at Blue Valley North High School. He coached Gier’s son and has been impressed by the amount of time he continues to put into the CAPS robotics program.

“Typically when people get involved they leave when their kids leave,” Ritter said. “But that’s not the case with Ron. I tell him that he missed his calling; he should have been a teacher or engineer.”

Ritter credits Gier with helping students develop their design ideas for their robots and in strengthening their critical thinking skills. Gier feels that as a mentor, his greatest contribution to his robotics teams is to teach them project management and problem solving skills similar to those he employs in the workplace.

“Most of the kids don’t come in with mechanical skills but they have great ideas and don’t know how to get started,” Gier said. “That’s where quickly moving from an idea to something that physically works is so important. They have great ideas but they don’t know how to take that first step to make a physical product. Once you start to visualize it is where the kids start to take off.”

Gier frequently comes to robotics practices after putting in 12-hour days at work. He typically volunteers four hours a week during the year and up to 20 hours a week during the six-week period when the two teams of around 30 kids each build their robots.

Ritter said that the students seem to enjoy working with Gier just as much as he enjoys helping them.

“He encourages and challenges them and is very patient and caring,” Ritter said. “The kids like him and they listen to him and value his judgment and instruction a great deal.”

One of the things that Gier has taught his robotics students is how to communicate well in order to be successful as a team. He always has them begin and end each practice with a five-minute meeting to formulate a plan and evaluate their work. It’s a skill that Gier feels will follow his students well into their futures.

“To be effective, you have to be able to communicate well,” Gier said. “When these kids go off to college after high school, if they bring that communication skill with them, they will have a leg up.”