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The Power of a Mentor

The week before school started I was hunched over a computer screen with Paul Flick, a wonderful FedEx programmer, volunteering time to talk me through trying to change scripts in computer batch files to try to get our Dragon Tag system working.

“I ran the file, NOW I get the message Error:  Invalid or corrupt jarfile!”

Paul responded “That’s good.  We’re seeing the same message finally. Rick (or was it Tommy) is reprogramming it now and should have it working soon.”

New files were sent via email, uploaded, downloaded, installed.  All in all, it seemed like 4 programming languages were needed and the interfaces included the computer, the RFID reader, the display screen, the online database, and the programming that connected each to each.

I was definitely not alone at the school.  Mat Davis our director of technology was troubleshooting each time he stopped in to check on our progress.

Holy Cow! When the moment of success came, you would have thought “Reader Success” meant we saved the world, it felt so good!!!

This all started 3 years ago in 2014 when a 5th grade research fellow at Baden Academy asked how we could make bus transportation at the school work better.  

Owen wanted to apply technology to make the bus rides for the youngest members of our school even safer.   

Owen reached out to FedEx to mentor his fellowship and together they developed a working prototype of the new dragon tags.

FedEx spent months with Owen evaluating the various needs of the school, watching us load 250 students onto 16 buses AND traveling to transfer sites where students got off one bus to transfer onto two.  

Small details, such as a request from a transfer school principal to make the tags obvious and red to stand out for them added to the big details of confidentiality and became part of pages of notes before programming began.

The start of the 2015 school year came and FedEx volunteers filled a room and assembled over 100 cards for us to use with our Kindergarten class.  Denise Sabolcik, the VP of IT at FedEx, had her daughter draw the red dragon that was made as part of the tag and the QR codes were outsourced by FedEx to link to the individual student database entry ony of the software they built for the school.  

We entered it all into the system and distributed Dragon Tags for each kindergarten student to wear on their book bag.

Students pass the RFID reader and we can verify they are getting on the right bus.  At the transfer sites, trained staff can use a cell phone to access a password protected site with a QR code and verify emergency information, bus numbers, and give home addresses to the drivers.  Each year an average of 7 ‘saves’ happen where a child is prevented from getting on the wrong bus or a driver has clarification where the youngest of our students need to go.

It is an amazing backup system to the vigilance of parents who communicate clearly and teachers who want every part of the school day to be filled with opportunity.

Each year different components of the system have shifted from FedEx to us. The first year, volunteers from FedEx came in early to assemble the tag, RFID and QR code. This year, the staff at Baden Academy and I had to learn how to order the tags, the RFID and QR Codes, how to troubleshoot the RFID reader that needed to be relocated.

Shout out to Patrick Stalling of MPI Labels who ran samples, made changes, and let us pick up labels a state away at the last minute before school began.

This year, we needed to replace the “Dragon Tag” computer, hence the need for me to learn enough batch programming to rename directory files with the help of self-sacrificing FedEx employees donating their time!

FedEx’s support not only made our kids safer – it made them curious.  Wanting to change the PHP programming that affected the display 4th grade research fellows Dru and Glorian started a programming club.  This year Brynn runs it.  FedEx again came in with volunteers to help!  The club grew and opened this year to 2 rooms: Computer Programming, Robotics, and Mobile App Design.  The club also provides a website of resources for students to pursue after they leave us in 6th grade.

We had a second problem, I’ll let Aderyn explain: “Some of the tags stop working.  Our third grade brought scientific thinking to that problem. Thanks to the generous donations of Atlas RFID and Alien Technology, we set up five classrooms of experiments.”

Aderyn’s TED Ed video was featured on the RAIN RFID website and the conference gathering together companies from around the globe who promote the universal adoption of UHF RFID technology.

Our students, teachers and school were recognized for their excellent work!

All of this was inspired by Owen’s original question to FedEx, “Would you consider becoming a mentor to my fellowship project?”  Their support has been extraordinary and I extend a very public THANK YOU to Mark Bracken, Tommy Moran, Rick Romesburg, Paul Flick, Jeffrey Walter, Robert Minford, and Denise Sabolcik at FedEx. Their support has been extraordinary.  They  didn’t just sign onto mentor Owen. They mentored me and Mat Davis with our school’s IT, Glorian and Dru and now Brynn with Dragon Tag programming, Aderyn and the 3rd grade teachers and students in the RFID experiments, and transformed our school into a hub of technology innovation and education.  Thank you!  

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