Insightful and inquisitive, John Button grew up surrounded by engineering.

“Both my parents are engineers,” said Button, a junior at Caroline High School in Milford, Virginia. “My father's an electrical engineer, and my mother is a mechanical engineer. So I've always had it in the household.”

Button in turn took up an interest in robotics. The only problem? There was no robotics program at his school.

“I've done a lot of different robotics programs, but the big issue with those is that I've had to drive sometimes hours away just to get to them,” Button said.

So he decided to take matters into his own hands. 

With the help of the Education and Outreach Division of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, Button has assembled an after-school class called Green Robotics that introduces middle school students to robotics specifically to help the environment.

Emphasizing sustainable practices, his student-driven initiative fills a gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at Caroline Middle School. Students will work on a course-long project and build a robot to better the environment, while learning both programming and physical design.

“If they have an idea, they could make it,” Button said. “We want to use those [ideas] to help tackle small issues that would be able to affect the community around us in a more positive way.”

Button’s vision involves teaching students how to document their work, how to best help the environment through technology, and how to best build prototypes.

“Throughout the 10-plus years of knowing John, we’ve worked with him on various projects including Kids’ Tech University; at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, where he helped with presenting the hands-on activity Virus Tracker on behalf of the institute; the High Performance two-week summer institute; and as a VT RoboOpts Design Team member,” said Kristy Collins, director of education and outreach at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “He is a responsible, respectful, and mature student who not only understands science and engineering at a level much higher than his age, but also can communicate it in a way that makes sense to all audiences. He is an asset to the science education-outreach community.”

Button traces much of his STEM exposure to working with the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, specifically the Kids’ Tech University program.

“One of the first places I went to for STEM was actually Kids’ Tech University,” Button said. “I remember talking to the speaker at the time. I liked getting to know more about him, and I liked his ideas, like becoming a scientist. To see this kind of cooler side of [engineering], like what they're actually doing, it was really eye-opening.”

Button has prior experience teaching younger students about engineering and robotics. He has been involved with CoderDojo NOVA, CoderDojo DC, eNable conferences, and Maker Faires, a combination of workshops and conferences that have propelled Button into a leadership role.

With his teaching, though, he does not want the class to just focus on raw information.

“I want them to be able to have the general skills to be able to work in robotics,” Button said. 

Beyond that, he also wants students that are sincerely interested in engineering.

“Some of my favorite programs that have helped in the past, sometimes it's really hard because the kids are forced there by their parents,” Button said. “I like with this class, that doesn't really seem to be the case. The ones that have been here are excited about it, which is awesome.”

Button is not entirely sure of his future, but he has his sights set on engineering. Right now, though, he’s focused on helping both younger generations and his community.

“It's been an awesome experience so far.”

- Written by Tyler Harris and Kendall Daniels

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