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April 5, 2018

SVSU’s Leonard a finalist for top adviser award in FIRST Robotics worldwide competition

John LeonardThere is life in the machinery for John Leonard.

The Saginaw Valley State University laboratory support coordinator has enjoyed working with electronics in machine shop environments for as long as he can remember. What really brings him joy, though, is working alongside – and teaching – others who share the sentiment.

Now the Midland resident is being recognized for his work leading a group of high school students set to compete as one of 160 teams that qualified for the FIRST Robotics state championships hosted by SVSU Thursday to Saturday, April 12-14. Leonard is a finalist for the Woodie Flowers Award dedicated annually to one outstanding mentor advising a team involved in the worldwide competition.

“I was surprised but honored when I heard about that,” said Leonard, an adviser to the Bullock Creek High School FIRST Robotics team known as BlitzCreek Robotics.

“It's a nomination completely submitted by students, which makes it even more of an honor.”

Eden Hackett, a Bullock Creek High School student and member of BlitzCreek Robotics, wrote a letter to nominate Leonard on behalf of the team.

“If there is one thing for sure, Mr. Leonard has a burning passion for BlitzCreek Robotics,” she wrote.

“He brings smiles, laughs, and innovation to our team. Being without Mr. Leonard would be like having a heart without arteries. He is an inspiration, a teacher, a friend, but most importantly, a mentor that keeps our team strong and on their toes.”

Leonard first became involved with the team when his daughter, Alex, was a senior at the high school. That was seven years ago. Since then, she graduated – and is now a history major at SVSU – but he decided to stay with BitzCreek Robotics after discovering his affection for empowering others passionate about working with technology.

“These are all students who want to be there,” Leonard said. “They're willing to spend as much time as is necessary because they're having fun doing it. They come in on Saturdays and Sundays, and near the end of the Robotics season, sometimes we have to kick them out of the building because the rules stipulate you can only work on the project for so many hours ahead of each competition.”

Leonard can relate to that fondness for working with gadgetry.

“I enjoy doing all of that: electronics, design work, machine shop work, restoring cars, building musical instruments,” he said. “I've always been involved in that kind of work. I love tinkering with technology.”

And while his role with BlitzCreek Robotics involves teaching others, the nature of the work sometimes results in a role reversal.

“These students bring things to the table that I don't know about,” he said. “I'm always learning things from them too.”

The theme for the 2018 FIRST Robotics competition is “Power Up.” It features two alliances of video game characters and their human operators who are trapped in a 1980s-style arcade game. Both alliances are working to defeat the boss in order to escape.

In each round, three teams compete using autonomous and remote-controlled robots piloted by students, battling to earn points during a two-minute round.

Each FIRST Robotics season kicks off in January, when teams worldwide are presented with a multi-faceted game challenge that will be used in face-off matches against competing teams. Students square off at regional events, then advance to district championships like the one hosted at SVSU later this month. Top-ranking teams from each district then match up in the world championships at the end of April, hosted this year both in Detroit and Houston.

Likewise, the pool of finalists for the Woodie Flowers Award will shrink after each round of competition. Leonard will learn if his nomination advances to the international level during the competition at SVSU.

About 5,000 high school students from 160 teams will be involved in the state championships at SVSU. In total, more than 8,000 people will visit the Great Lakes Bay Region for the competition, including mentors, family members and FIRST volunteers.

For more information about FIRST Robotics, visit