Once upon a time, 15-year-old Kyle Redfern ventured into a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team meeting at his high school in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Professional engineers put serious tools in his hands, and taught him to use them. The machine-loving teen began spending many after-school hours working with teammates to design, build, and program a 120 pound robot.
Kyle’s girlfriend, Jennifer Hurban, wondered how an activity could consume so much time. She went to see for herself.
Soon, both teens were absorbed in robot-building, eagerly solving problems alongside others who loved science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Both stayed active in FRC throughout high school, then continued their STEM education in college. Kyle earned two engineering degrees and now works as an engineer for John Deere. Jennifer received a bachelor’s degree in genetics and is working on a master’s in biology, preparing for a career in biotechnology.
Ten years after their introduction to FRC, Kyle and Jennifer are still involved with FIRST, now mentoring a high school team in Waterloo, Iowa.
“It’s interesting to see it from the other side,” said Kyle, “not having the success, but helping someone else have it. That’s satisfying.”
They’re also still a couple. Kyle and Jennifer became Mr. and Mrs. Redfern in 2015.
That could be the fairy tale ending to this story. But there’s more.
They’re also still a couple. Kyle and Jennifer became Mr. and Mrs. Redfern in 2015—in a ceremony featuring one of their FIRST robots as ring bearer.
A Family Strong in STEM
Even as teens, Kyle and Jennifer noticed something remarkable about the grown-ups who give time and energy to FIRST.
“They respected us,” said Jennifer. “They took us seriously and never treated us like simple-minded kids.” This impressed her so much, she invited her father to get involved. “I knew my dad would love it,” she said.
She was right. In 2008, Dick Hurban became not just a FIRST mentor, but a FIRST fanatic. To date, he has mentored more than 200 students, launched several FRC and FTC teams, and volunteered at more than 50 FIRST events. He’s also a 31-year John Deere engineer who received the 2015 John Deere Inspire Volunteer of the Year Award.
Jennifer’s mom Lisa—another John Deere engineer—got involved, too. She has volunteered with high school teams, started and mentored elementary school FLL teams, and planned regional events.
Emily Hurban, the family’s youngest, also participated in FRC throughout high school and has been an active volunteer throughout college and graduate studies (surprise: she’s pursuing advanced STEM degrees, too). And although matchmaking isn’t part of FIRST’s objectives, Emily also met her boyfriend through robotics.
Volunteering is Personal
Clearly, the Redferns and Hurbans are serious about STEM careers. But their commitment to FIRST is not just professional. It’s deeply personal.
“When I see my dad with the students, he inspires me,” said Jennifer, her eyes welling with tears. “I really think his goal is to get these kids to college. And that’s not always a given in this community,” she said of Waterloo, Iowa.
High school senior Rachel Dillavou can vouch for that. In the fall, she’ll enter college, preparing to be a physicist or astrophysicist—careers she might never have considered if not for the Redferns and Hurbans.
“That family knows they have a lot more than most of the families around here, and they give of themselves without question,” she said. “They have helped me so much in my personal growth. And Dick Hurban wrote me a letter of recommendation that made me cry. I will never lose touch with that family.”
FIRST Robotics Team 5837
The team building and testing robots for previous competitions.
FIRST Robotics Team 5837
Beyond Building Robots
Regardless of why students come to FIRST—to learn technical skills, to experience competition, or to have fun with friends—they’re often surprised to find much more.
“What interested me was the coolness factor of robots,” said Nick Heinz, a Waterloo sophomore. “I thought I might learn to do some programming. But I’ve learned so much more than I expected—like public speaking and video editing and computer-aided design. And since Dick is always telling me I remind him of his younger self, now I know what I’m capable of!”
Helping teens discover their potential is what motivates the Redferns and Hurbans. They’ve seen beginners become leaders, shy kids become social, and strangers become community.
“No matter how their robots perform,” said Jennifer, “seeing their growth is very rewarding. These kids are already winning the moment they walk through the door. It’s so good to be around that energy. It brushes off on you.”
John Deere funds hundreds of FIRST teams through grants. Additionally, John Deere employees—like Kyle Redfern and Dick and Lisa Hurban—generously give their time and energy to FIRST as mentors and volunteers. Many of these employees log their volunteer hours with our Dollars for Doers program, which results in additional funding for FIRST. In fiscal year 2016, John Deere Inspire STEM volunteers gave 26,170 hours, supported 460 FIRST teams and raised $213,000 in John Deere Inspire Dollars for Doers grants.