FIRST Inspires Stories: Robotics is all in the family

Drop by a family dinner with the Crance family of Lee’s Summit and the chatter will quickly turn to robotics. Bob, who has spent 35 years at Black & Veatch in mechanical engineering, and his wife, Janice, an early childhood educator turned small business owner, are sending their fifth (and youngest) son in a row through the FIRST Robotics Competition program.

Oldest son Michael was a senior at Lee’s Summit High School back in 2005 when his physics teacher, Jim Nazworthy, helped start the school’s first robotics team. His brother Christopher was a freshman for the rookie year of 1730 Team Driven. Bob quickly jumped in as a mentor and when Janice detected the need for some mom-like TLC, she jumped in, too.

At this point, Kansas City didn’t have a regional tournament so the team traveled to Denver to compete. Much to their surprise, they received the Rookie All Star Award and the opportunity to move on to the World Championships in Atlanta.

Twelve years later, Janice still serves as team mom, coordinating meals during the build season, serving as a chaperone and always keeping the First Aid kit stocked and at hand. Bob continues coaching Team Driven, which has expanded from 15 or 20 members in the early days to 50 this season. Youngest son Jonathon is a sophomore on the team.

Son No. 3, Matthew, got his first official taste of robotics when Team Driven began offering robotics summer camps, and he has never looked back. Now a senior pursuing degrees in civil engineering and architectural engineering at Missouri S&T in Rolla, he volunteers at Kansas City events and is an active member of S&T’s FIRST Alumni chapter (which incidentally was founded by Christopher, who now works as an electrical engineer at Burns & McDonnell in Kansas City).

Son No. 4, Andrew, also participated in FRC all four years of high school and is now at Linn State Technical College in Linn, Mo., in the Caterpillar Dealer Service Technician program.

A robotics family

“There’s no doubt we’re a robotics family,” Janice said. “One summer Bob and I bought robotics kits at Radio Shack, thinking they would make great Christmas presents. As we talked about it, we decided to buy some extra kits and pieces as part of the gift. But within two days, the kits were out of the box and out of the Christmas closet!”

In those days, Bob would issue a building challenge to his boys and they would create it. One year they built a robot that could hand out the Christmas gifts, Janice remembers.

Now the family is so involved in FIRST they don’t have much time for free builds. Michael, the eldest, lives in Texas where he coaches FRC Team 4206, the RoboVikes. The team just won the Dallas Regional and is moving on to Worlds in Houston next month.

And youngest son Jonathon gives back by mentoring the FIRST Tech Challenge team at Lee’s Summit’s Pleasant Lee Middle School.

“It’s one of those programs that kind of takes hold of you and makes you want to stay in and be involved,” Janice said. “The growth I’ve seen in my own kids as they’ve moved through it is phenomenal. You can see a tremendous change from freshman year to senior year in their confidence, in their presentation skills and their leadership abilities.”

A recruiter’s dream

Bob finds the time he spends in the FIRST Robotics community a valuable tool in recruiting talented employees to his team at Black & Veatch.

“I have some great success stories with FIRST students straight out of high school. One of my interns has been with me the last three summers and is from team 1986. She’ll start with us full time after she graduates in May.”

Fellow coach Nazworthy’s son, also a member of the rookie year Team Driven, also works with Bob at Black & Veatch.

“This is a recruiter’s dream,” Bob said. “These students can contribute right off the bat. There’s a huge value in this group of kids.”

Even after the entire line of Crance boys graduates and settles into their careers, Bob and Janice predict they will still be part of the FIRST family.

“I think you could safely say I’m a team mom for life,” Janice said.