Tony Brazzell volunteers time, talents to the Limestone Robotics club for kids in Lawrence County
Feb. 15, 2017
By day, Tony Brazzell is a member of the UITS Campus Networks group, where he helps keep IU’s e-commerce transactions safe from criminal activity. Firewalls, security, encryption and routing: If it’s credit-card related and goes over the IU network, Brazzell is your man.
On evenings and weekends, though, he’s safeguarding something else: the future of Lawrence County, Indiana.
Brazzell is from Bedford, the Lawrence County seat. A lifelong lover of technology, especially robotics and engineering, Brazzell is a mentor/coach for Limestone Robotics. The organization supports kids ages 5 to 18 in robotics and the STEAM areas of education -- science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics -- in Lawrence and surrounding counties.
Limestone Robotics began in 2010 with just 16 elementary and middle school students using the FIRST Lego League program. (FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- is a not-for-profit public charity that encourages young people to study STEM. The league is an international initiative to teach children how to design, build and program a robot using Lego Mindstorms technology, then compete on a table-top playing field.)
Fast-forward a few years, and the group now boasts 11 teams working with more than 130 kids. Limestone Robotics has also begun collaborating with the IU School of Informatics and Computing and helped facilitate FIRST scholarships at IU.
Brazzell couldn’t be happier with the growth.
"It’s very rewarding to teach kids about the logical process of programming a robot and what they can achieve if they take things one step at a time," he said. "Our motto is 'Kids do the work,' and we instill that at a young age. We go to competitions, and the kids joke with me because I get choked up. When they win an award, I’m crying because I know they earned it."
He’s had plenty of reasons to cry those happy tears. In 2016 alone, three of the seven FIRST Lego League teams earned awards at the regional qualifications in Columbus, Indiana; one FIRST Tech Challenge team earned state finalist honors; and the STEAMRollers team qualified for and competed in the FIRST World Championships in St. Louis, after winning the Rookie All-Star Award for the state of Indiana. Notably, Limestone Robotics’ all-girls FIRST Lego League team, composed of kids ages 9 to 14, competed in Indiana’s first girls-only tournament -- and won. (Their name? The Robow Squirrels.)
This dad of two (Jake, 19, and Joseph, 12) is pretty familiar with teaching technical concepts to kids. For the past four years, he’s also been involved with the Pervasive Technology Institute’s "Ready, Set, Robots!" summer camp for middle school and high school students in the Bloomington area.
There’s just something about robotics and kids that clicks with Brazzell. Maybe it’s because it reminds him of his childhood and the bond he and his dad shared.
“My father was an electrical engineer for the Air Force and Otis Elevator. One of my earliest memories is him giving me an Erector Set as a birthday present,” he said. “My parents were divorced, and when I saw my dad every other weekend, it was a big deal. We started building a multifloor building with a running elevator. When we finished, he took me to one of the old buildings in downtown Bedford, and he showed me the insides so I could compare that to what we built. Pretty cool.”
Brazzell’s interest in technology only grew from there, and he went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering technology from Purdue University. After stints at Cook Imaging and Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division, he came to IU in 2006 as a security engineer in the University Information Security Office. While there, he helped them build the payment card industry network, create policies, and establish education and training for merchants. He has been with Campus Networks since 2009.
“The best thing about my job? I truly enjoy the group of people I get the chance to work with: the managers, directors, associate vice presidents and fellow engineers," Brazzell said. "I really enjoy that ability to work with qualified folks who are willing to learn and allow me to learn.”
This love of learning is a theme throughout Brazzell’s life, and he’s even helped create a nonprofit to share that joy. Brazzell serves as vice president of LCSTEAM, a 501(c)3 charitable organization established to fund STEAM efforts for kids in Lawrence County. LCSTEAM provides funding for Limestone Robotics and other STEAM-related projects.
Thanks to local donors Sandy and Danny Daughtery, LCSTEAM now has a remodeled building in which to host activities and grow young minds. (Of note: Danny Daughtery recently passed away, but traded in his bucket list to help the kids of Lawrence County.)
"We’re trying to build kids, not trying to build robots. The robots are the byproduct," Brazzell said with a grin.
Limestone Robotics is seeking volunteers and sponsorships. If you’re interested, contact Tony Brazzell at firstname.lastname@example.org.