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Take me out to the ‘Botball’ game: Robotics competition fuels STEM interests July 15, 2019

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The KISS Institute for Practical Robotics (KIPR) unleashed hundreds of robots in Norman at the recent Global Conference on Educational Robotics that brought 700 school aged software engineers from around the world to Oklahoma.

Students from elementary age to high school competed in an international robotics competition called “Botball,” in which autonomous robots they designed, built and programmed attempted to tackle the task of cleaning up a virtual “city” that had been ravaged by flooding.

I was there at the invitation of my friends at the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) for the opportunity to see some student-built robots in action.

A student team makes last-second adjustments to their robot before the Botball tournament begins.

While students saw Botball as a fun and challenging competition, the KIPR Institute describes it as a “standards-based” STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education program.

“What is awesome about Botball, I have students that are writing code and doing all of this in the third grade,” said Steve Goodgame, executive director of the KIPR Institute. “I had a college student who came in earlier and said he was working with the elementary students and ‘my gosh, that’s what I was doing as a freshman in college and these third graders are doing it.’”

The KIPR Institute hosts STEM events throughout the year and regional Botball competitions from which top teams qualify for the International competition.

The Institute has a mission to improve the public’s understanding of STEM and “develop the skills, character and aspirations of students” while contributing to the enrichment of schools and the community.

Teams from Canada, Mexico, Qatar, Kuwait, China, Poland, Austria, Africa, Taiwan and across the United States came to Norman for this year’s event, which also included an aerial drone competition and international keynote speakers.

Of course, there’s a bottom line to all the Botball fun. And that’s the acquisition of STEM skills that help create a workforce prepared for the career demands of the future.

“We are teaching a bunch of skills they can put in their tool box that they can use when they start innovating new companies, new ideas and new technologies,” Goodgame said. “It’s imperative that we as a state prepare our younger students as they age up and get these skills so we have a talented workforce that understands computer science.”

For Gillian Melendez, a 16-year-old junior-to-be from Xavier College Prep in Coachella Valley, Calif., the International Botball experience provided the opportunity to meet like-minded students from around the world and pursue her interest in software coding.

“I started when I was in 6th grade and I fell in love with it,” Melendez said. “Most girls aren’t into robotics because it’s nerdy, but I fell in love.  I love to code.”

Melendez was one of two girls on the six-person “G-Force” team from Coachilla Valley.

Norman native Braden McDorman is Exhibit A that Botball is an effective strategy for building STEM skills.

Braden McDorman is an entrepreneur who learned coding from his Botball experience

McDorman began competing in Botball in middle school, and today is co-founder and chief technology officer of a robotics software startup called Semio.

“I started Botball in sixth grade at Whittier Middle School and did it all through high school,” McDorman said. “Then I got an internship at KIPR working on software in high school and continued while I was working on my undergraduate degree at OU.”

McDorman’s path took him to the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics in high school and then on to a computer science degree at the University of Oklahoma. He also serves as a KIPR instructor for regional Botball competitions in Southern California, and co-founded Los Angeles-based Semio with another Botball alumnus.

“I’m working on a startup all because of Botball, actually,” McDorman said. “It’s a game that teaches everything you need to know to do real science, real programming. It’s the perfect way to prepare for a career in STEM.”

(Full disclosure: I write about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).





A typo and a Confederacy of Dunces — 2019 July 1, 2019

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We needed to change a single letter in a name. A typo. We wanted to change an “A” to an “O,” correcting the misspelling “Soloman” to “Solomon” on a birth certificate and Social Security card issued to my newborn grandson, Solomon James Stafford.

The bureaucracy conspired against our efforts to make it happen. We had to make five separate trips to state and federal offices to get it corrected.

Let me start at the beginning.

rejectedMy daughter gave birth to a baby on May 29, a boy who was born two months premature. The hospital sent a person around to inquire about the name shortly after he was born. Both my daughter and my wife told her that he was to be Solomon James Stafford and spelled it out.


Somehow, Solomon became Soloman before it was turned into the state for an official birth certificate. That misspelling was picked up by the Social Security Administration, which promptly printed out a new SS card in the wrong name and mailed it to us.

The effort to correct the spelling turned into an odyssey that began with our initial trip to the records department at the Oklahoma Health Department and ended up with four trips to the Social Security office before the “a” could be corrected to an “o.”

Here’s how it happened.

At the state records office, my daughter filled out the form requesting a corrected birth certificate, and we paid our $30 for two copies and then went to the window to obtain the documents.

After a short wait of just a few minutes, the woman behind the glass gave the new birth certificates to my daughter and we were off! As we walked out, I told Sarah that she should check the spelling just to make sure that it was correct on the corrected version.

She opened the folder and then stopped dead in her tracks. I looked. It read “Soloman James Stafford.”

I looked back and no one was at the window yet, so I ran back and told the attendant that the new birth certificate we received had the same misspelling. When my daughter walked up, she was told to go pay the fee once again, then get back in line.

Sarah fought back tears and an urge to scream at someone, went back and paid a new fee for corrected birth certificates, then got back in line, which had grown considerably. Turns out, this time the wait was about 35 minutes, but we ended up with two birth certificates with the correct spelling of Solomon James Stafford.

Then we headed to the Social Security office. Bad news. Sarah was told that a birth certificate is not acceptable to change a name. We needed an official document from the hospital.

So, we drove back to Mercy Hospital and asked for an official document with a doctor’s signature as proof of birth. A nurse gave us a certificate that had the doctor’s signature, the seal of the hospital and included Solomon’s footprints.

Nailed it! Or so we thought. We were rejected for a second time at the Social Security office because the document the hospital gave us was a “souvenir,” as the attendant described it. “That’s not an acceptable federal document,” he told us.

Back to the hospital, where we went straight to the health records office and asked for something – anything – that the Social Security Administration would accept. I was given a couple of printouts that included the doctor’s notes from the birth and an immunization record. The doctor’s signature was electronic and the document did not have a name or hospital seal on it.

But that’s what we received. By now, I had gone out of town on a trip, so my wife took over and went with Sarah back to the Social Security office.

Of course, the documents were rejected again.

This time, Paula went straight to the hospital and requested to talk to an administrator. She told them about our plight and the need for a signature and an official hospital seal with Solomon’s name on it. The hospital had to create such a document and did.

Paula took that back to the Social Security office and it was finally accepted as official. I was still on my trip out of town when my daughter texted me the words “FIFTH TIME IS A CHARM!” I called her back and learned that baby Solomon (allegedly) would soon be receiving a new Social Security card with the correct spelling of his name.

I’ll call this lunacy a Confederacy of Dunces after my favorite book, because the system set us up for failure time after time.  

Baby Solomon, it will be years before you realize the challenges that we faced to correct a random typo of a single letter in your name. But we got it done. You’re welcome.





When Oklahoma City invested in itself March 6, 2019

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I’ve been reading about the ongoing debate over the upcoming vote on a temporary, 1-cent sales tax that the citizens of my home town in Fort Smith, Ark., are considering imposing on themselves.

The tax, which as I understand it would be effective for only nine months, would be used to complete the U.S. Marshals Museum, which is under construction along the Arkansas River in Fort Smith.

To me, a “yes” vote on the tax would be a no-brainer. The community would be investing in itself for a facility that would enhance it as a go-to destination for visitors from around the nation and the world. 

But many don’t see the possibilities, and only see the extra penny tax they would have to pay. You can read about the debate here from the Talk Business and Politics website.

I would offer Oklahoma City’s experience in investing itself as a template for what is possible.

Since we voted “yes” to our MAPS projects in 1993, OKC has been transformed into one of the nation’s premier go-to destinations not only for visitors, but for new businesses and residents. We built a new ballpark, arenas, a canal, a library and transformed a neglected and almost empty river that runs just south of downtown.

Now we have one of the NBA’s premier franchises, a downtown streetcar system and are building a fantastic new “central park” and massive convention center. Our population is blossoming, and many of those are the young, educated “creative class,” who are choosing to stay here rather than take jobs out of state after graduating college.

All because of MAPS, a temporary, 1-cent sales tax.

Sure there were naysayers who could not or would not see the vision. I’m so glad that the majority of voters bought into the concept of MAPS in 1993 and in subsequent votes in the years to follow.  We’re so far removed from the city we were in 1993.

I’m hopeful that the folks in my hometown of Fort Smith can see the vision of what is possible for their community and vote “yes” for the temporary sales tax to fund the Marshals Museum.




Setting it straight; digital newspaper subscriber responds December 31, 2018

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I recently shared my thoughts in this blog on the current struggles of the newspaper industry and frustrations that I have little to offer as far as solutions to reverse the trend.

I used my friend Casey as an example of smart young potential readers who have found their news sources elsewhere.

After the blog post was published, I discovered that I did Casey a disservice.  

Turns out, even though he’s great with snarky one-liners about the newspaper industry (for my benefit as an old newspaper guy), he still reads the daily newspaper online.

Casey told me that he is a newsok.com “pro” subscriber to the online version of The Oklahoman.  And he comes from a family of longtime newspaper readers and subscribers.

So, I asked him to share his thoughts on what type of content the newspaper should offer readers.  Here is what he said:

“I go to the newspaper when I want a more in-depth, more trustworthy source. Instead of instant alerts, I think they need to slow their content even more; give me more detail and deeper journalism. Heavily researched.  Articles more like what you would find in a magazine, almost.”

Casey was responding to what I wrote about young people seeking only online news alerts and instant headlines instead of deeper newspaper coverage.  

Of course, newspapers continue to struggle, despite the support of individuals like Casey.  The Oklahoman announced in its Dec. 27 editions that it was trimming its circulation area and eliminating street sales. 

Casey broke my stereotype of the typical young American who only learns what’s happening in the world (or their local community) through social media interactions.

And he likes the paper.  He really, really likes it.

“For my money, real reporters work for the newspaper,” he told me.

Wow. Casey, I salute you.  And I promise not to throw you under the bus again, even if you zing me with a snarky one-liner.  



I wish I had a magic potion to restore fading newspaper glory December 17, 2018

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My friend Casey recently told me that the newspaper is great for when you want to know what happened 24 hours ago. 


As a former newspaper guy who started his career on a manual typewriter back in 1978, Casey’s honest truth really hurt.  

No one is wanting the newspaper — all of them — to succeed more than me. But I see what’s happening all over the country (and world, I guess). People are seeking their news sources online with instant alerts for which they aren’t likely to pay a dime.

There’s nothing earthshaking in that news. It’s a reality that we all know. How many people under the age of 30, no, 40, no, 50 are newspaper subscribers? A handful; 5 percent? 1 percent? 

In fact, Pew Research recently released results of a survey that showed more people now get their news content via social media than the newspaper.

My friend Casey is roughly 30 years old. He prefers instant updates and free content.

Some of my former newspaper colleagues are discouraged because they are convinced that if the paper would just (insert remedy of choice), subscribers would come back. I’m afraid that ain’t happening.

Subscribing to a newspaper takes commitment, financially and in time.  It’s the model from, oh, 1990 and earlier. Young people aren’t buying it, literally. You know why? They were never newspaper subscribers in the first place.

I wish I had a magic potion.  

My ideas tend to run toward things like a cool app similar to that of Starbucks where I can put money on my account ahead of time and draw it down as I consume coffee (or, newspaper content). 

More analysis and less breaking news from 24 hours ago might help. But there’s always that obstacle of free content.

So what’s the answer?  The papers (all of them collectively) are going to have to figure out a way to make their online content so alluring that folks like Casey would be willing to make a small monthly investment. 

That’s the model that The Athletic sports site is pursuing, although I think it’s too early to call it a success. 

That still doesn’t keep the presses running.  

Meanwhile, I’ll just fetch the latest edition of the paper off my driveway for as long as it lasts. I don’t want the physical newspaper to disappear, even though I can access it online. 

I’m from Generation Past.

Once upon a time, virtually every house on my block had a paper out in the driveway before daylight.  Now it’s only on my driveway and one or two others.

Recently, I was at a local hospital waiting on my daughter’s appointment when a nurse came by. I was reading my paper.

“Ooh, we don’t see many of those around here these days,” she said. “Where did you get it?”

I had some breaking news for her.

“Off my driveway this morning,” I said.

Then there is my friend Casey, who assures me he loves the newspaper and always has. “Just not enough to subscribe to it,” he said.






Launching pad: Considering the potential of UCO’s Don Betz STEM Center November 16, 2018

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Michael Carolina, left, OCAST executive director, poses with Dr. Thomas and Carolyn Kupiec in the Don Betz STEM Research and Learning Center on the UCO campus.

I’ve always said that I would love to be involved in a STEM career, except for a few barriers – those being science, technology, engineering and math.

So, I’m content to write about those subjects on behalf of my friends at Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) and i2E, Inc.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t admire an awesome new facility like the Don Betz STEM Research and Learning Center on the University of Central Oklahoma campus.

UCO officially opened the new 57,000-square-foot facility with a ribbon cutting ceremony this past Wednesday. I was among about 200 people fortunate to attend.

After the speeches and the ribbon cutting, we were invited inside to check it out.

The Don Betz Center, named after the current UCO President, features state-of-the-art research and teaching labs for multiple academic disciplines and a striking lecture hall that can accommodate 80 students.

As I wandered the halls taking it all in, I encountered Dr. Thomas Kupiec, CEO of Oklahoma City’s ARL Biopharma and DNA Solutions. He and his wife, Carolyn, were visiting with Michael Carolina, OCAST executive director. I consider them all friends of mine and stopped to chat for a moment.

I knew that Dr. Kupiec was a UCO graduate, earning his undergraduate degrees there, but did not realize how involved he remains with the university. He is a member of the UCO Foundation Board of Trustees, and his Kupiec Family Foundation provided funding for the Betz Center’s lecture hall.

Dr. Kupiec pointed me to the lecture hall just across the corridor from where we were talking, so I walked over to check it out. A sign on the outside wall identified it as the Kupiec Family Foundation Lecture Hall, so I stepped inside.

The lecture hall is breathtaking, with theater style seating, sleek white tables and massive video screens scattered throughout.

The lecture hall also doubles as a storm shelter and is identified as such at the entrance.

The rest of the two-story Betz Center was equally impressive. I saw labs filled with microscopes and chemistry hoods. I toured a teaching facility for nurses that looked like an actual hospital room. I saw large racks of computer servers.

Hanging on the walls in the interior corridor were the original drawings of the building as envisioned by the architects at Elliot & Associates.

The Don Betz Center appears to be a perfect place to launch the next generation of chemists, health care professionals and research scientists for whom science, technology, engineering and math are no barriers.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing about it.

Inside the Kupiec Family Foundation Lecture Hall




Fondly recalling my first love in computing — an Apple //e November 8, 2018

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The original Apple //e, released in 1983


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to tour the NextThought, LLC, offices on the University of Oklahoma’s South Research campus. The company  specializes in educational technology and “connected” online learning.

As founder and CEO Ken Parker escorted me through the open office, I spotted what appeared to be an original Macintosh computer on one of the desks. Ken asked me if that was my first computer.

I said that my first computer was actually an Apple //e.

Ken turned and gave me a high five.  Turns out that his first computer also was an Apple //e, which debuted in 1983.

Of course, Ken learned how to write software on his Apple //e and went on to build an incredible career developing financial services and now educational software.

My interest in the Apple //e was all the cool things I could do with software already available on it such as the original Visicalc spreadsheet, word processing and games. AppleWorks became my go-to software product.

For instance, I used AppleWorks to develop a spreadsheet with which I ran a fantasy baseball league for several years.  Of course, I had to spend several hours each week inputing data from the newspaper into the spreadsheet to make it work.

I did make a couple of unsuccessful stabs at learning to write software on the machine.  Maybe it was a lack of patience that held me back.

i recall writing a little program that printed “My name is Jim Stafford.”  The first time I inputed “run,” into the program, the screen filled with my name and wouldn’t stop. I had to do a hot reboot to get it to stop.  Only later did I realize that my little program needed a line to tell it how many times to print “My name is Jim Stafford” and then a line that said “end” to make it stop.

The Apple //e sat on my kitchen table for a half dozen years before I finally, reluctantly, retired it. It controlled my checking account. I tracked stocks on it. I wrote articles and even created a little newsletter. I added a modem and surfed local OKC online “bulletin boards.”

Finally, I gave it to my uncle to use in his business.  I moved on to the more modern Mac.

I still miss my original Apple.


RNT Cyber Ethics Conference highlights importance of protecting computer data November 7, 2018

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Jonathan Kimmitt from the University of Tulsa addresses the recent RNT Cyber Ethics Conference as keynote speaker

Editor’s note:  I attended the recent RNT Cyber Ethics conference at Metro Tech’s Springlake Conference Center on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology.  My question up-front was “why cyber ethics” vs. “cyber security?”  I got my answer from keynote speaker Jonathan Kimmitt from the University of Tulsa.  Below is an article I wrote on behalf of OCAST, with an abbreviated version published in today’s editions of The Oklahoman:

Life-and-death consequences can result from decisions made by computer network administrators to keep their systems secure from outside attackers, said Jonathan Kimmitt, chief information security officer for the University of Tulsa.

Exhibit A: The Wannacry ransomware cyber attack on medical facilities across Great Britain in the spring of 2017 that crippled the ability of state-run hospitals to provide medical care.

Wannacry put lives of patients in British hospitals at risk because of delays in surgeries and urgent care, Kimmitt told an audience at the recent RNT Cyber Ethics Conference 2018 at the Metro Technology Center Springlake conference center.

Kimmitt was the first of several keynote speakers and session leaders to address the ethics of cyber security at the two-day conference, sponsored by RNT Professional Services, a Norman-based company that provides cyber security risk assessments, training and security project management.

“It really does come down to ethics and decision making,” Kimmitt said. “If I were to release everyone’s information out into the world, would that be ethical? I would say it’s not. But if I allowed a system to be vulnerable, which caused someone to release that information, is that the same thing?”

In the Wannacry cyber attack, network administrators shared in the blame because they delayed updating their computer servers with Microsoft-recommended patches that would have kept the malware at bay.

“We had a bunch of server administrators in the U.K., who had that mentality, who said ‘we’re not going to update our servers, we’re not going to make any changes,’” Kimmitt said. “Those who are in IT hear that all the time. Well, their machines were unpatched, and, therefore, they got ransomware.”

Other conference speakers followed with similar themes.

Kevin Owens, principal at Spokane, Wash.-based Cerberus Cybersecurity, LLC, outlined how Russian cyber attackers took down much of the electric grid in Ukraine by using “spear-phishing” tactics to gain an administrative password

In spear-phishing, attackers use personal information gathered online about targets to disguise themselves as a trustworthy friend or entity.

“The No. 1 thing that you guys can learn is we’ve got to learn to defeat spear-phishing,” Owens said “This is the No. 1 way these guys are getting in. We need to train users.”

Tom Vincent, banking, compliance and data security/privacy attorney at GableGotwals, conducted a session on the importance of ensuring data security and privacy in a corporate setting.

“More and more it’s a financial issue,” Vincent said, citing a case where a pharmacy lost a $1.4 million judgment because personal data of a single customer was released by an employee. “You should not have security and privacy be an afterthought.”

There are many examples that show the importance that ethical decision-making plays in maintaining data security, said Teresa Rule, President of RNT Professional Services.

“When I was 11 years old, my cousin Susan’s diary was stolen by my other cousin and he read it out loud,” Rule said. “She was very embarrassed, but only the people at the dinner table heard it. But now if you were to steal someone’s electronic diary, it goes global. Remember Sony? Ashley Madison?”

“If you are the owner of a business or someone who is responsible for protecting data and you are not taking due diligence you are not being an ethical citizen.”

Jim Stafford writes about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).

A cup of joe with the new Mayor of Fort Smith November 3, 2018

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Whenever I drive over to my hometown of Fort Smith, Ark., to visit my widowed mother, I manage to squeeze in a visit to my favorite local coffee shop, Fort Smith Coffee Co.

Located just off downtown’s Garrison Ave., Fort Smith Coffee Co. has a great vibe with a mix of young hipsters and older folks like me (who skew the demographics of the place!). It has good coffee, good background music, plenty of sun and is a great place to hang.

So, I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat on a stool with the sun at my back watching people come and go.

Suddenly, a handsome man wearing a suit and tie came through the door. He seemed to know everyone, laughing and joking with other patrons as he ordered his coffee.

As I started to depart a few minutes later, it occurred to me that this was George McGill, Fort Smith’s newly elected Mayor.  He was seated near the exit reading the newspaper as I headed to the door, so I walked up and said “you look like you could be the Mayor.”

He laughed, stood up and shook my hand as we introduced ourselves. We talked for a few minutes, and he touted the city for all the good things that are happening like a recent music festival and a downtown public art project called “The Unexpected.”

Then he told me that his election as Mayor says a lot about the city because “African-Americans make up only 8 percent of the population.”

I agree. I’m proud of Fort Smith for electing George McGill as its Mayor, and for the exciting things going on like public art and construction of the new U.S. Marshall’s museum along the Arkansas River.

And that a place like Fort Smith Coffee Co. was thriving on a Saturday morning.

My friend Ed told me that I drove a long way to get a cup of coffee. Yeah, but I get to see my Mom and all the positive changes going on in Fort Smith, so it’s always worth it.

WATCH: OCAST interviews at Oka’ Sustainability Conference October 24, 2018

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Why is water sustainability a key to Oklahoma’s future?  Here’s what several participants at the recent Oka’ Sustainability Conference on the campus of East Central University in Ada had to say about the subject: