By Alex Cornacchia, Contributing Writer
Northborough – You’d be hard-pressed to get Dan Strickland to talk about himself for more than five consecutive seconds. As a full-time hardware test engineer for Hamilton Storage Technologies and team advisor for Team 1100, a FIRST Robotics Competition Team based at Algonquin Regional High School, the issue is not a lack of things to discuss. It’s just that Strickland would really rather tell you about a shy student who joined Team 1100 a few years ago who is doing phenomenal presentations now, or about a Team 1100 mentor who’s been working in engineering for 20 years, or about all the fantastic adult volunteers who give up their Friday nights to come to the Team 1100 meetings.
“Our head mentor is very, very modest,” explained Team 1100 Co-Captain Manisha Rajaghatta.
Though Strickland may not be one to boast, those who know him are more than happy to take on the task. Many are quick to point out the influence Strickland has had on Team 1100’s growth. When he first began volunteering in 2002, there were only about a dozen students coming regularly to team meetings. Today, there are nearly 80.
It’s striking to see such a large group of people spending their Friday nights at robotics team meetings – not just high school students, but also parents, Team 1100 alumni, and engineers who don’t even have kids but just want to help however they can. But to those involved it doesn’t come as much of a surprise: Strickland makes it a place that everyone wants to be.
“A lot of them come because it’s what their friends are doing, or they want to check it out,” noted Lead Mentor Bob Galgano.
Part of it is Strickland’s passion for robotics. Students who never would have dreamed of being interested in the subject find themselves coming to weekly meetings, and even going on to pursue degrees in engineering. A lot of that, they said, is because Strickland loves what he’s doing so much that it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement.
“Dan has such an infectious level of energy,” observed Lead Mentor Wes Church.
That energy doesn’t disappear when the last of the Team 1100 members have gone home, either. He’ll often stay at the school into the wee hours of the morning working on projects for the team.
“It’s rare to come here on an evening and not find Dan here,” said Church.
Beyond his tireless dedication, Strickland has an ability to create an atmosphere where everyone feels welcome. He takes time to get to know each person individually, not only figuring out what strengths they can bring to Team 1100, but also taking interest in other aspects of their lives.
“He’s not just, like, there to teach us about robots and go home,” asserted Team 1100 Co-Captain Jessie Sigler. “He [ ] really cares about everyone.”
When Strickland talks about the students, it’s with obvious respect and pride.
“You learn just as much from the students as you teach them,” he reflected.
That warmth and engagement is not lost on people. Many even refer to the team as a sort of extended family.
“A dysfunctional family,” Strickland joked.
Watching Strickland at a recent Team 1100 meeting, it seemed to be anything but. With over 70 students engaged in various activities, there were plenty of things to track, and Strickland wove quickly in and out of classrooms to ensure that everything was running smoothly. When he was talking one-on-one with students, though, he always made sure to give them his full attention, listening intently, as though he had all the time in the world. Though the meeting technically ended at 9 p.m., Strickland lingered, laughing with students and mentors long into the night.