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Solon coach takes robotics on the road

Recent trip to Romania and possible trip to Israel for quickly expanding field
Solon Robotics Club Coach Bill Mattaliano recently traveled to Bucharest, Romania to help with the BRD FIRST Tech Challenge. (photos by Trent Bowman)

SOLON– Bill Mattaliano brushed it off as a joke when asked to travel to Romania to help run a robotics competition.
“Yeah, sure, right,” he recalled saying.
“Next thing I know, I’m in Romania, helping run a 96-team tournament.”
The tournament, held March 24-25, was only the country’s second of its kind.
Mattaliano, who said his “real job” is a prison guard at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, has been coaching the Solon Robotics Club since 2009.
That first year, he said, just three students participated in the after-school program.
“This year, we had 45,” said Mattaliano. “It’s been growing every year.”
Against all odds, this unabated growth, and his success with the program, led to the robotics coach traveling to Bucharest, Romania.
Romania does not currently have a reputation for robotics, but it may be looking to change.
“They’re just new to it,” Mattaliano said, of why the country sought outside help.
Mattaliano had experience in running the sort of large robotics competition Romania wanted in on.
The reason for this, Mattaliano suggested, is companies are rapidly expanding their usage of robotic assistance. Those same companies are looking for employees knowledgeable of how to build and program robots.
Mattaliano paid for his airfare, and that was about it. His hotel stay was paid for by BRD, the Romanian banking company hosting the BRD FIRST Tech Challenge.
The “FIRST” in the Tech Challenge is the name of a not-for-profit public charity created to inspire children to learn about technology and science. FIRST was founded in 1989 in New Hampshire.
Mattaliano coaches the form of robotics known as VEX, in which students must use the materials provided to them.
“You’re very constrained on what you can use,” he said.
With FIRST Tech Challenge, or FTC, the students may use store-bought parts, or anything found on the Internet. VEX was founded by Project Lead the Way, an initiative similar to FIRST.
The tournament, held in Bucharest, was an FTC event. Four Romanian teams qualified for the world championship, held in Detroit, in April.
Mattaliano said despite Romania’s distance from home, communication wasn’t a difficulty during the trip.
“About 30 percent of the population speaks English,” he said. “Primarily, the students all spoke English. There wasn’t really any language barrier with the students.”
After the tournament, Mattaliano was treated to a day-and-a-half tour of Romania’s historic landmarks, including Bran Castle, of Dracula lore. Additional castles and fortified cities were also taken in, as well as some very good food.
“The food was excellent,” said Mattaliano. “It was very, very good.”
Mattaliano said he will probably go back for the next competition. He’s already been invited to go to Israel to help with its national championship. 
“It’s a definite possibility,” he said. 

Solon’s regular robotics season wrapped in February, and ended favorably for two of the club’s middle school teams. 
The teams, each part of the VEX portion of the Robotics Club, qualified for the U.S. Open in Council Bluffs in April. 
The Solon squads faced a field of 100 middle school teams.
“They finished about the middle of the pack,” said Mattaliano. “So that was pretty good.”
With the season wrapped, Mattaliano is making preparations to start the process all over again. 
In August, he plans to hold two or three open houses to hopefully find some help for next year.
“We’re always looking for adults, older kids, to come in and help mentor it,” he said. “Even if they don’t know anything about building it, you’ve got ideas that you can put out there for the kids.”
Mattaliano’s son, Joe, a seventh grader who had been playing a computer game nearby, chimed in that he is a mentor for the local VEX teams, and a programmer for FTC. 
The seasoned young vet participated in competitions in fifth and sixth grades, but now that he’s in seventh, Mattaliano says his youngest son has been “bouncing from team to team, helping them.”
The enthusiasm runs in the family. Joe’s older brother also participated in the club.
“If we had this when I was in high school, I’d have been doing it without any problem,” smiled Mattaliano.