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Travis Hoffman
Travis Hoffman Name: Travis Hoffman
Date Honored: 09-30-2005
Years involved w/FIRST: 5
FIRST Team(s): Delphi Corporation &, Warren G. Harding High School (0048)
Role: Controls Captain
Quote: “I remember one time when I was so afraid, didn't think I had the courage to stand up on this stage. Then you reached into my heart and you found the melody, and if there ever was somebody who made me believe in me, it was you. It was your song that made me sing. It was your voice that gave me wings, and it was your light that shined guiding my heart to find this place where I belong...” - Garth Brooks, 'It's Your Song'
Bio: Travis Hoffman is a truly unique, dedicated individual who shines in FIRST. When asked to describe his position on his team, he told us this: "My primary team responsibility is serving as the Robot Controls Captain/Clueless Electrical Guy Who Agreed to Program The Robot Even Though He Had Never Once Learned BASIC or C, Ever. I joined the team late in 2000, shortly after I hired in full time at Delphi. At the time, xtremachen was a mostly engineer-designed and built robot, and the previous programmer had to leave Delphi E.L.I.T.E. to pursue his Delphi fellowship at Stanford. Because of this, both my boss and the team leader practically begged me to join the team as his replacement. This was a harder decision for me to make than you might think. My college years were not the best years of my life by any means. Let’s just say I failed to take advantage of many of the great non-academic opportunities college has to offer. I graduated possessing a rather bitter outlook about life and was also quite an introvert. Upon receiving the invitation to join Team 48, I was trying to formulate every excuse possible to decline the invitation, but something inside me told me to take the chance, so I took the plunge. For most of my first season in 2001, it was very rough for me – I really didn’t know how to relate to the kids, kept mostly to myself, and was under a lot of pressure to learn how to program the robot on the fly. I really wasn’t enjoying myself at all until a student I never really talked to approached me one day late in the build period and asked me to help him build a control box and add some neons to the robot cart he was designing. I was very surprised that he would do this, and I thought it was amazing that he would come up to me and ask for my help, even though I had practically ignored him all year. I happily agreed to help him, we had a great time building that war wagon together, and even though we never made it to the eliminations once at our competitions, the rest of that season was just an amazing experience. I’ve never stopped loving this program and its people ever since.

"On the way to our 2001 team banquet, where I would soon deliver a speech that a few months earlier, I would have been terrified to get up in front of everyone and read, Garth Brooks’ “It’s Your Song” started playing on the radio. The lyrics matched perfectly with the emotions I was experiencing that day. I cried. Later, during the speech, I broke down and cried again. This has now become a tradition that banquet goers have come to expect over the years. Saying goodbye to each group of graduating students is tough, ya know? I haven’t let the expectant spectators down yet. Someone always makes sure there’s a lot of Kleenex at the podium when I speak. So I get emotional a lot – sue me. These kids on Team 48 have changed my life for the better in so many wonderful ways. I just hope I’m doing enough to fully return the favor to them.

"In addition to my programming duties, I also serve as the Student Coordinator for Team 48. What is a Student Coordinator, you ask? Well, I figured someone would tell me by now, but I’m still waiting to find out. LOL, actually my job here is to see that the students always have a voice with the mentorship crew and to make sure they’re all up to speed on important team matters. I seem to have gained their confidence over the years, and they are usually willing to approach me with ideas, information, and concerns they may initially be too shy or reluctant to share with some of the other teachers and mentors. Yep, the guy who originally didn’t want much of anything to do with the students on the team is now one of the primary team listeners. As part of this job function, I also split the team Social Activities Coordinator duties with several other mentors, helping to plan community service events, paintball outings, team picnics, the team Christmas party, trips to Quaker Steak and Lube, and the like."

Travis had a lot to say about his favorite memories in FIRST. He also told us a little bit about why they made a difference in his life. "Well, I would have to say that the account of my first season and the culminating team banquet was my most favorite FIRST memory, so feel free to use that for this section, but the rest of the best memories I have of FIRST usually have something to do with Canada. Most of the CD people out there are probably screaming “Aw geez, here he goes again. Shut up about Canada, already! All you ever do is ramble on and on about how wonderful the place is.” To these people, I offer up one giant “Pbbbbbth!” They deserve every bit of praise I hand out and more. Not that Mark Breadner and the Canadians (sounds like a great north of the border rock band rival to DS&TK) have ever needed our help to organize and promote FIRST robotics in their country, but our team is proud to be one of the few American teams to venture north to compete against and support our friends ever since the inaugural Canadian Regional in 2002. That initial event also marked the first time the team really came together to reach out to help other teams in need at a competition, something we’ve happily done ever since. Canada really brings out the best in our team. I really can’t list all of my favourite FIRST memories (most of them Canadian-related), but here are just a few, in no particular order:

1. Partnering with 188 and Team 229 in the Canadian elims in 2002.

2. Helping a Canadian student singer finish her rendition of the American National Anthem at the regional’s opening ceremonies when she forgot the lyrics. We joined with all the American teams in energetically singing the song out loud with her. That was one of those “Trav – you big baby!” tear-inducing moments.

3. Driving off the top platform onto 1114’s robot in Pittsburgh in 2004, bending their arm, rushing over to offer our assistance afterward, becoming friends, and meeting Karthik for the first time (is that really a good thing?).

4. Being chosen by 1114 later on that year at the Canadian Super Regional, competing in a thrilling finals sequence against 33 and 639.

5. Partnering with 1503 and 84 in the Greater Toronto elims this past season, returning to the finals, this time against 1114’s alliance. It was Triplet against Triplet, and we scratched and clawed and flailed our way to one of the most exciting series of finals matches I’ve ever witnessed. And defense was a big part of it! Yahoo!

6. Volunteering for the first ever Canada’s Wonderland offseason competition this past summer. Getting to watch the visual and verbal artistry (huh?!) of that dynamic announcing duo of Steve Warren and Karthik Kanagasabapathy for the first time. Witnessing the infamous moment when Karthik serenaded Amanda Morrison with his *unique* interpretation of “You’ve Lost that Lovin Feeling”.

7. One of the most surprising and special moments of my FIRST career occurred at the Greater Toronto Regional in 2005, when Team 48 was awarded our first ever Johnson and Johnson Sportsmanship Award. This one held a special place in my heart because to help them make their decision, the judges distributed ballots to all the participating teams asking them who they felt most deserved the Sportsmanship honour. This was a sensible and logical thing to do, I thought, and It added an extra special touch of significance and legitimacy to the award. I never thought the little things my teammates and I quietly did to help others (and believe me, they are little, especially wherever my programming assistance is concerned!) would ever add up to winning something like that, but I guess I was wrong. Thank you so much, not only to the teams who appreciated our help enough to suggest us for the Sportsmanship Award, but to all the teams and volunteers who attend the Mississauga regional every year, for making the competition the highlight of our season.

8. As I’m sure the big dork who nominated me mentioned (Paul “Paco” Morrison, our four year robot driver and one of my best friends on the team), I had to miss the Buckeye Regional in 2004 to go on a 2 week business trip to Shanghai, China. This was the first time I had ever had to miss a competition, and I can tell you it was TOUGH. I was actually happy I was half a world away on this trip, because it allowed me to perform my Delphi work during the day and monitor the goings-on back home at night. I spent one evening in a Netmeeting session preparing one of my replacement programmers for the Cleveland competition. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep on that trip. I ended up passing on a weekend trip to Beijing to see the Great Wall so I could stay in my hotel and rack up the Delphi calling card charges keeping in touch with the team during the Buckeye Regional. Surprisingly, I did manage to help them solve a few programming issues over the phone. I bet I hold the record for the longest distance live robotic tech support in FIRST history! Imagine my surprise when the team made it to the finals at Buckeye – the first time they had done so during my tenure with the team. I even managed to get in the team picture, as the kids enlarged and printed out a pic I emailed them my first night in China and posted it in our pit. Paco held it up as they took the team photo following the finals. It was my pleasure to return the favor to Paul this past season, holding up a pic of him in our Chairman’s Award photo when he was away on a trip to France.

It was the most surreal thing to be separated from the team and the action in Cleveland. I was refreshing usfirst.org every five seconds for match updates. What an experience. As the end of my first two weeks in China neared, I found out I’d have to stay a few more days. This put me in danger of missing the Canadian Regional. I was quite distraught over that possibility – yes, even a few tears were shed – WUSS! But it all worked out, and I flew back home to Ohio, arriving just in time to do my laundry, pack, and get in my car to drive five hours to Canada. I arrived at our hotel around midnight Thursday morning. I had been to four countries (including Japan) in one day, but I had made it. This team is my second family - meeting up with the entire crew at breakfast the next morning, I knew I was finally back, and the welcome home everyone gave me was phenomenal.

After Cleveland, I was a bit disappointed I missed our trip into the Buckeye finals. Given our team’s penchant for avoiding the finals round ever since I had joined the team, I was beginning to think I was a jinx. Fully expecting to revert to our frequent pattern of semifinal round playoff exits upon my return, imagine my surprise to find us back in the finals in Canada, taking home four awards in the process, including an unexpected Engineering Inspiration Award that FINALLY brought some of my fellow mentors to tears along with me – bout time. It was our best regional showing ever and a truly wondrous feeling to experience in person. Guess I’m not such a jinx after all.

9. Winning the 2005 Buckeye Regional Chairman’s Award. For many on the team who devoted so much time to this, not only to the preparation and delivery of the presentation, but also to the development of the Delphi E.L.I.T.E. program into something we could all be proud of, this was the highlight of their careers. We came so close to winning this award in the two seasons previous; for many, especially for our seniors and departing head teacher mentor, who held hands in the stands with their eyes closed, hearing the judges’ comments and realizing they were talking about us, finally hearing our name read out loud by Dave Verbrugge - it was a euphoric experience. Personally, however, I really didn’t feel the emotional high that many of the other team members felt on that day. While I am very proud of all the improvements we’ve made to our program over the five years I’ve been here, I know returning team members can do so much more, and this team has a looooooong way to go before it can even begin to be compared to all the other amazing Regional and Championship Chairman’s winners out there. For Team 48, the journey is only beginning.

Travis also had a heartfelt list of FIRST accomplishments. "Compared to most of the other great UFH’s who have already been honoured, my list of contributions to the greater FIRST community is very small, if nonexistent. I haven’t published any white papers. I am not a major technical contributor on Chief Delphi. I haven’t designed a part or assembly that’s included in the Kit of Parts. Outside of the individual support I offer up to local teams during the build season and all teams at the competitions we attend, I haven’t found the time to volunteer at events or reach out beyond my own team to any significant degree. I really have no major accomplishments of note that I feel are worth.

90% of what I have done as a FIRST mentor has been centered on Team 48. I really don’t think my level of dedication and commitment to teaching our kids the ideals of FIRST is any greater than that of Mark Baka, Paul Jones, Tammy Artle, or the rest of my fellow Delphi E.L.I.T.E. mentors. So what makes me so freakin’ special that some of my students would nominate me for the Woodie Flowers and UFH awards? What have I accomplished that somehow makes me worthy of this recognition? Why did the selection committee choose me for this honour based upon this nomination? Well, I don’t know. You’d have to tell me. Let the words of the people who originally nominated me be your primary guide here. I will provide a few additional pieces of info that may be helpful:

1. I am single and do not yet have a family of my own to take care of. This means I am free to devote more time to my Delphi E.L.I.T.E. “family”. I think of Team 48 as FIRST meets the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. I happen to think that if you have the time to commit to your students, there can be more to being a mentor than simply giving them technical guidance. There is more than one way to inspire a kid through this program. Even mentors who do not possess the technical skills to help design and build a robot can positively affect these kids through their ability to communicate, listen, be a positive presence, and simply be someone in their lives they can talk with and depend on.

2. Because I’m around the team a bit more than most other mentors, I tend to sit down individually with the kids more often. I sometimes have conversations with them and other times I simply listen to what’s on their minds. Sometimes, they share home-related or social problems that are totally unrelated to school and the team. Other times, I’ll help them with their homework. I don’t always (and many times shouldn’t) suggest solutions to their problems and I don’t always know where to point them to find the help they need, but I think just having someone to talk to about it makes a big difference to these kids.

3. I am one of several mentors who organize social events for everyone on the team. Paintball outings with mentors and students shooting each other = great fun. We’ve done a lot of purely fun activities over the years to build up team camaraderie and to supplement the educational benefits of the program. Perhaps this “social director” position has an additional *coolness factor* attached to it?

4. We’ve always had an open door policy on Team 48 - any student may join and is welcome to stay and travel with the team as long as he/she actively participates and keeps his/her grades up to the standards we’ve established. There are no hard roster limits or stringent application procedures. Because of this, we tend to get all kinds of students from a variety of different backgrounds, from the brightest IB kids to those who’ve never applied themselves in school, from the technically-gifted shop rats or computer nerds to the kids who’ve never even held a screwdriver. Many of the kids on our team are at a disadvantage educationally when they first join the team, because they either haven’t been exposed to or haven’t taken advantage of the educational opportunities available to them. Some of them have also gone through life constantly hearing things like “They can’t do this. They don’t have what it takes to be successful. Why should they even try when failure is inevitable?” from family members and others who should know better. Reversing that trend takes time, and during that period, a student’s confidence in his/her ability to be a worthwhile contributor to the team may be shaken. No matter the background of a student, I try to boost their confidence and assure them that their opinions and ideas matter. While it’s good that they approach me initially if otherwise they wouldn’t even open their mouths, I eventually try to shift them away from using me as an intermediary and instead guide them toward directly communicating with the mentors they need to talk to. We are slowly but surely moving away from the “100% engineer designed and built” origins of the team and shifting toward an equal balance of student and mentor involvement in the robot design process, but everyone needs a periodic reminder from time to time to simply listen what the kids have to say and believe in their potential to succeed. The students’ increased involvement and leadership in all the design aspects of the team is our #1 priority, and I am committed to making sure this culture change is successful on Team 48."

When we asked Travis how he would describe FIRST to an outsider, he gave us this gem: "Geez, I’m not very good at stuff like this. OK, this is for the 21-and-over crowd. Since Dean wants FIRST to replace professional sports as America’s favorite pastime and source of role-models, imagine the following is a synopsis for a TV spot that would be aired right after every Bud, Miller, Busch, Heineken, Coors, etc. commercial that appears during each NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL game. If we’re going to win over the kids of this country, then we enginerds have to try and make a connection with their parents, right? Besides, if it’s good enough for JVN and VexLabs then it’s good enough for me…….

Andy Baker speaks….

“Hey America. I’m Andy Baker – a wholesome down-to-earth hard-working flag-waving Midwestern mullet-wearing rock-star mechanical engineer pig farmer family guy everyman who I’m sure all of you watching this broadcast can surely relate to in some way. I know how much you all love to chug down a few (dozen) cold brewskis during the game. What true American doesn’t (finishes his can of non-alcoholic O’Douls and crushes it on his forehead)? Hooooooahhhhh! Well, I’m here to tell you about a competition that’s more exciting than the one you’re watching and makes you feel better about yourself than beer ever could. What could I possibly be talking about, you ask? FIRST Robotics, of course!

“As distinguished beer connoisseurs, you all have very refined tastes. You first research and sample various brands to determine which one appeals most to your discriminating palates (offseason projects). Once you make your selection and chug down your first brew, you may not quite know what to think of the initial experience (Kickoff Time, early design). After awhile, you might even think it’s going to kill you (the latter weeks of the build period, the late nights, the pizza, the KK’s, the Mountain Dew). Eventually, though, (ship day, competition time) you start to feel realllllllllllllllllly good and stop caring about anything you’ve done to adversely affect your physical health. It’s at this moment you start to feel like you’re on top of the world….that is, until you wake up after spending three crazy days in Atlanta, Georgia, you realize you haven’t seen your real family in weeks, you spent all your money on beer, and you have to go earn some cash before you can return to your local convenience store and get some more (summer fundraising). Only you don’t care cuz you just loves you the beer, you do! FIRST is just like that, only a thousand times better – what a rush (cue Team 27’s robot)! So what are you all waiting for? Drop your beer cans, grab your kids, stop watching the game and join a FIRST team in your home town. Thousands of other Americans have joined, why not you? FIRST – The Best Buzz You’ll Ever Get (cue 33 and 175’s robots).”

Finally, Travis gave some advice to his fellow FIRST-a-holics: "Well, it’s obvious to me that FIRST is succeeding in achieving its goals. Just look at the steady increase in the number of teams each year. Just look at Chief Delphi and the ever-increasing number of kids confidently sharing their ideas and designs online. Look at how many former FIRST students are helping to expand FIRST to colleges and universities everywhere. Slowly but surely, you’re all getting the message and helping to spread it to others. All I can ask of all of you is to simply keep up the good work. Dean’s goal of establishing a FIRST team in every high school may seem unattainable given our current pace, but as long as he keeps dangling that carrot out in front of the horse, as long as we pause every so often to feed the horse and take care of it – to make sure all existing teams and those new teams we create are all built upon a solid enough foundation to survive and thrive - our cart will continue moving in the right direction. We all have the hunger and desire to keep this thing moving – keep on chasing that carrot, but do it sensibly. Ensure quality before expanding the quantity. Don’t beat your horse into the ground chasing that dream."

A hearty congratulations to Travis Hoffman, our 43rd honoree of the Unsung FIRST Heroes Award.

Nominated By: The Paco

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