Teens and technology are Bill Neidlinger’s specialty

In an effort to consume a big slice of humble pie, I am reprinting the column I wrote for today’s US&J about a fascinating local man and his techno-wizard students. In the queen of all blunders, I wrote his name as Bob (that’s his father and son) instead of Bill! Bill saw the humor in it but I am posting it here in its corrected version. Thank you Lord, for keeping me humble.

            For some people, the best investment in the future is time and talent spent on our youth. Today’s Spotlight shines on Bill Neidlinger of Burt.

            Neidlinger started his career as a teacher of technology about 34 years ago in Maryland. Following his start there he taught for 20 years in the Lewiston-Porter District and then on to BOCES, working with students in Newfane and Niagara Wheatfield. For Neidlinger, the study of technology can be the doorway to life skills that transcend the subject matter. Using a combination of technical skills and a passion for creative thinking, he has become a mentor for young people in Newfane and beyond.

            About fifteen years ago, Bill joined NCCC teacher Don Voisinet in preparations for an NCCC Technology Preparation Consortium. They wanted to present the best of technology in a friendly competition that would bring the students and teachers together to explore the possibilities in a technology career. The NCCC Tech Wars began with Newfane, Starpoint, Niagara Wheatfield and Barker taking part and has grown to include many area schools. The amazing technical challenge caught on and served as a model for Erie County and Genesee County Community Colleges to form their own Tech War challenges. Most recently the NCCC group played host to an educator from Worcester, Massachusetts who is looking to take the program there. Tech Wars have challenged students to master technology and to apply those skills to a plethora of occupational choices.

            In the autumn of 1999, Delphi supervisor Dennis Black approached Bill with a new opportunity to challenge his students. FIRST, “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is the brain child of wealthy entrepreneur Dean Kaeman. At 18 Kaeman developed the first wearable infusion pump for intravenous fluids and has used technology for a host of inventions from medical machinery to the Segway, the electric transportation device. Locally, the Delphi Corporation was looking to sponsor a team in the international FIRST competitions. What better place to start than with a man who has already invested years in making technology fun for local students? This year will mark the tenth anniversary of Circuit Stompers, bringing together Delphi engineers and Newfane students. FIRST’s mission is to use wholesale marketing and media techniques to motivate the next generation to want to learn about science and technology and Kaeman has personally recruited scores of the top leaders of American industry, education and government in this crusade. Neidlinger has inspired his share of students to embrace technology as a career, and that makes him very proud.

            In 2008[update] over 1500 high school teams totaling over 37,000 students from Brazil, Canada, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, the U.S. and the United Kingdom and more competed in the FIRST Robot Competition (FRC). Circuit Stompers revel in the chance to be a part of the annual competition. Teams are given a new problem to solve each year and are given six weeks to complete the assignment. In that time frame, Delphi engineers, teacher and students must brainstorm the concept, build prototype robots, refine and select their competitor and ship the 120 pound robot to the regional competitions, held in March. Bill refers to it as the “March Madness of science, math and technology” and students across the world are competing to win 41 regional competitions to advance to nationals.

            The cost of registration and the kit of parts are underwritten by corporate sponsors and teams generally fundraise to earn the addition amount they are allowed to spend on the project. For the students in grades 9 through 12, the extracurricular activity requires a huge commitment. Right now they are meeting from 4 to 7:30 p.m. daily, and will be working on their robot from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, in addition to their regular academic work and other activities. It is the passion for the possibilities that drives these young men and women and Neidlinger sees his role as mentor as “an experience that changed my life.” For the local team, fundraising is the summer challenge. The Circuit Stompers Booster Club helps out, with treasurer Sherry Bottom coordinating snack sales at sporting events. The rewards, beyond the thrill of accomplishment and competition are many. Each year the FRC offers scholarships for participants. In 2008 there was $9.8 million worth of scholarships from 108 colleges and universities, associations, and corporations.

            The 2009 competition theme is “Lunacy” with a play on lunar landing modules, and their robot, as yet unnamed, must be shipped by February 17 for the first regional at RIT in Rochester. They will also attend a regional in Philadelphia and a win at either event will take them to the April national event in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2003, the Circuit Stompers went all the way to national competition in Houston, Texas where they placed 5th. Neidlinger credits the unbelievable contribution of Delphi and i’s engineers and staff for ten years of total support for the project. The students, however, see Neidlinger as their shining star. His passion is infectious and he encourages his students to apply the technological lessons to a wide variety of practical applications, from electrical and mechanical engineering to computer programming. One former student is pursuing a career in industrial psychology. Neidlinger is encouraged by the fact that girls are as interested in technology as the boys and he’s mentored a few girls who had more mechanical aptitude than their male counterparts. “It’s gratifying to see young people grow in technological ability and life skills,” said Neidlinger. “They start as freshmen with little clue as to the process, and by their senior year they are designing and building most of the robot themselves.”

            Neidlinger’s influence started at home. Son Joe completed four years in FIRST and is in a cooperative study program at AVL in Detroit before starting at Kettering University in the fall to study mechanical engineering. Son Bob, 26, is a mechanical engineer who stayed in Michigan after earning an engineering degree from Kettering. Daughter Emily, 27, moved back to the area to start a teaching position in Wilson last fall. Jill, who will be 23 on Sunday, is in her fifth year at SUNY Brockport, earning a degree in history and special education.

            The awesome experience of Kaemen’s FIRST program has inspired Neidlinger to apply his own skills to life’s problems. He recently converted a 1978 Fiat X19 from a fuel-burning combustible engine to batteries and an electrical motor. He had a chance before Christmas to get it on the road for a run around town, but the heater-less vehicle is safely garaged until warmer weather. The next step is to be able to share that technology with students and further the cause of a greener America.

            Though retired now from BOCES, the Circuit Stompers get most of Neidlinger’s time and attention, but not all. A life member of Newfane United Methodist Church, he serves as chairman of the administrative council. Never idle, he still finds time to hay his wife’s five horses on their seven acre ranch, and to support her in all of her community activities. Sue Neidlinger is well-known in Newfane for her Shoppe on Main and tireless efforts to boost her community.

            In a world that advances in technology so rapidly, the task of inspiring and motivating young people to see the limitless possibilities of creative thinking and applied technology is a daunting one, but for this local man it is an important one. For influencing generations of future inventors and educators, the Spotlight shines on Bill Neidlinger and all those he has inspired to the world of technology.


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