Tag Archives: Millard West

Tinker, Maker, Robots Guy

January 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nate Hutchison, 16, dumps his Rubik’s cube collection onto the dining room table. The stash boasts an entire spectrum of not just colors, but shapes and varieties, too: puzzles composed of interlocking triangles, diamonds, crosses, but also dimensions one wouldn’t expect from a “cube,” like snaking ropes, prisms, and even non-Euclidean brain-benders.

Nate got interested in solving and collecting puzzle cubes in elementary school, and he started getting serious about the hobby in middle school. His mother, Heather, was an employee at Fat Brain Toys (an Omaha-based maker of educational toys and games), and Nate was frequently tapped to test their new products.

“I seek out the most interesting ones,” he says, “like the ones that aren’t 3-by-3 cubes,” or cubes that require more steps to solve. It’s a small glimpse into a hobbyist world dominated by human calculators, and though Nate doesn’t participate in Rubik’s cube-solving competitions (yes, such contests do exist), his ability to solve the puzzles is still very impressive, taking a few minutes on average.

His foray into puzzle cubes opened the way for greater ambitions: the world of robotics. Heather proudly shows off a YouTube video of a mechanical arm, which Nate built to solve a cube puzzle. “The arm works by sensing the color in front of it, and calculates what move to make next,” Nate explains as it plays.

The exercise launched Nate into pursuing robotics “full time.” He joined the national Zero Robotics tournament with a team of classmates at Millard West. The competition hosts students from around the world, challenging them to program small robots on the International Space Station.

His engineering club has also boasted some other novel accomplishments, such as building a cannon to shoot t-shirts.

“The school has two engineering pathways, and I’m seeking a ‘distinguished’ diploma with emphases in mechanical and digital engineering,” says Nate, who hopes to enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after graduation.

For sure, Nate’s family has been incredibly supportive of his ambitions and interests. His mother is now a special education para in their school district, and his father, Wendell, has a career in software development.

“As parents, we’ve tried to foster his interests as much as we can,” they say, and the echoes of science and technology can be felt through every corner of the Hutchison household, brimming with robotic figurines and images, as well as scientific kits, sets, and games. “The biggest challenge as parents,” Wendell says, “is to discover the possibilities, and then expose them.”

Nate’s interests are far from single-minded, though; his love of engineering is complemented by a love of music. He plays bass clarinet and lettered in band and orchestra. “I like metal and electronic music,” he quips (as Wendell makes a rock ’n’ roll devil’s horns gesture in solidarity).

It’s clear Nate has an exciting future in front of him; yet in the here and now, he’s a relatable teenager. His latest goal? “Learning to play guitar.”

Visit fatbraintoys.com and zerorobotics.mit.edu for more information about Nate’s Rubik’s cube supplier and the national robotics competition.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Austen Hill

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Austen Hill knows that camping is an exciting, even vital, part of kids’ summers. He does his part to make sure the Papio NRD camps stay exciting.

“I like to do different activities that they may not get to do every day,” Hill says. “Many of the camps I’ve been to are kind of cookie-cutter in that they do they same activity each year, or each day.”

Hill’s camps include a variety of activities, and while the campers might see a snake each year, Hill makes sure to talk about different snakes so kids who may have come before learn something different.

It’s an amazing idea, especially realizing that Hill is a one-man show. He coordinates everything from spring registration to summer counseling.

He uses Pinterest and other internet sites to find fresh ideas and learn new things himself. Of course, many of his ideas come from his own life experiences. Hill grew up in West Omaha, in an area that included a cornfield and a wooded area where he ran around as often as the weather permitted, fishing, hiking, and pursuing other activities.

It’s that interest in the outdoors, and in learning new things, that drew him to this position at the NRD. While earning a degree in wildlife and fisheries, he thought he would pursue research as a career. A summer job at Fontenelle Forest showed him his true calling of education.

Now, Hill is the education assistant at Papio NRD. His school-year job is coordinating programs for students. He helped to produce 250 programs in 2016, working with schools four out of every five days during the academic year. Some schools come out for field trips to the NRD, while many other days Hill travels to schools.

“We’ve worked in a lot of inner-city classrooms,” Hill says. “Not every school can be outside … at least I can bring the environment to them.”

One of his favorite parts about working with kids is teaching them about animals. His menagerie at Papio NRD includes nearly 30 reptiles, an owl, and amphibians. It is one of the kids’ favorite parts as well.

“A lot of people talk about keeping kids’ attention,” Hill says. “I never have that problem.”

Kristen Holzer, a zoology and biology teacher at Millard West High School who has worked with Hill at camps and at her school, concurs.

“It’s amazing how much kids get excited,” she says. “They love hearing about the animals. He’ll let them handle them, so he passes around the snakes and things. Of course, the kids all get out their phones and take photos with them.”

At least, they take photos during school visits. The camps involve a lot of old-fashioned fun … spending time and energy hiking, kayaking, learning archery, and many other activities away from the often-ubiquitous screens.

“They can’t have cell phones,” Hill says. “We take those away first thing so the kids aren’t tempted to look at their phones while we’re doing other activities.”

While many parents want their kids to be connected, Hill says he finds the parents of his campers often embrace the idea of unobstructed time in the woods. The kids are always supervised, and the exposure to the environment gives them a chance to learn and grow.

Hill himself is part of the reason why NRD camps and programs are fun.

“I think what makes it so cool is that he has the ability to relate to young kids and high school kids,” Holzer says. “He has a really good skill set for his job. I enjoy working with him too.”

That ability to relate allows him to help kids confront their fears, and learn new things themselves.

“Kids are fearful of everything,” Hill says. “I’ll have kids who are scared of a tiny bug that can’t even fly. Then I’ll show it to them, and they get first-hand experience, and they learn this is not something to be afraid of.”

He also teaches environment classes, from tree planting to an annual Water Works field day for fifth-grade students. Papio-NRD also hosts the metro’s Envirothon Competition, an annual environment-themed quiz competition by the National Conservation Foundation aimed at high school students.

Conversely, his perspective becomes refreshed thanks to the kids.

“We get dull to things,” Hill says. “We step right over earthworms. Sometimes it takes a four-year-old to get awed by earthworms. That’s a good feeling.”

Visit papionrd.org for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

The Robo Wonder-Kid

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Collin Kauth-­Fisher believes that nerds will win in the end. The self-described nerd and recent Millard West grad is accustomed to winning, especially when it comes to robotics.

The 18-year-old has won national accolades for his ability to sink baskets with robotic hands. “That’s not a human doing that, it’s different,” he says, explaining his excitement for robotics. Meanwhile, the next phase of his robotics career is already shaping up to be a slam dunk.

A fascination with technology was one of the most consistent parts of his childhood, amid frequent relocations for his father’s military career. Kauth-Fisher built structures and tinkered with technology, but his interest in robotics really bloomed at Millard West. He pursued robotics classes and joined the school’s robotics team, the Cat Trons, during his senior year. He was the team’s lead programmer. 

Millard West participates in a variety of robotics competitions, principally those that use VEX Robotics Design System. VEX produces metal robotics with attached motors, which are driven by a combination of remote-controlled sensors. The bots often look like miniature forklifts made of perforated steel parts, and are programmed to make computer-controlled movements.

In VEX robotics, students use their knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and math to build structures. The competitions are games that test engineering acumen. Kauth-Fisher and the Cat Trons competed with other high schools throughout the fall and spring semesters. They battled it out in qualifying rounds. Matches consisted of two teams in a ring that looked like a geekish version of WWE Wrestlemania.

Kauth-Fisher, specifically, worked in the CREATE group, an advanced robotics challenge in which students are encouraged to test their engineering and design skills using any system they want, such as LEGO or VEX. This means that, while a standard VEX competition only allows the students to build a robot from kit supplies, students working with the CREATE group are allowed to enhance their inventions.

This creativity helped the Cat Trons succeed in their quest. They advanced from local and regional competitions to the CREATE U.S. Open Robotics Championship, a three-day event held April 7-9 at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs. They competed against approximately 200 teams, including teams from as far as New York and as nearby as Omaha North.

The Cat Trons excelled. The object of the game was for the robots to shoot foam balls into a net. Millard West was the only team to complete the mission. They were crowned the tournament champion of the open division and also won national honors.

Kauth-Fisher’s interest grew into a summer job. This past summer, during an internship at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he helped graduate students build a portable location tracking system. “I don’t consider it work,” he says during the summer before his freshman year at Iowa State University, where he will study computer engineering.

Just as Kauth-Fisher created a robot with an arm that picks up foam balls, he hopes to create robotic arms for others (possibly in the form of prosthetics).

He believes that robots will play a crucial role in the future, especially in his future.

To learn more, visit nebraskarobotics.com. Omaha Magazine

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The Kutashes

June 16, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Gabe Kutash, 10, loves playing basketball in his driveway. He often plays in his big yard, rides his bike around the cul-de-sac with his brother, and walks to school with his siblings.

Gabe really likes living in Omaha. “There’s so much room to play outside!” he says, throwing his arms into the air. “It’s great!”

Gabe and his parents, Jeff and Jessica Kutash, moved into their Baywood home almost three years ago. It’s very different from the 1200-square-foot, 1920s-era home they once owned in Oakland, California.

“It was just above a mid-range home for Oakland,” Jessica says. “I was so shocked when we were able to move here and get over four times as much space for a far lower mortgage—even including the renovations we did. It’s awesome.”

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For Kutash, it wasn’t the size of the house, but the quality of the high school that was the first priority in choosing their neighborhood. Millard won. Jeff and Jessica’s three children will one day attend Millard West High.

“Outstanding schools, so much parental involvement, so encouraging and supportive,” she says. “And it is a public school. We were looking at three private school educations had we stayed in Oakland.”

They loved the layout and location of their new home. The bigger challenge was bringing it up to date, and creating a living space that fit their tastes and lifestyle. Oh, and actually having enough furniture. Kutash estimates her existing furniture filled only about 25 percent of her new house. Rather than tackling multi-colored cabinets, and cotton candy pink spaces on her own, Jeff and Jessica enlisted the services of designer Julie Hockney.

“I saw her work in Omaha Magazine, actually. I loved one of her featured makeovers. So I gave her a call,” Kutash says. “She’s amazing. When we walked through the house, she had great ideas. She listened to us and really ‘got’ us. I came to trust her so much that she picked out most of the accessories without me.”

The main level of the home flows easily from room to room with few walls, so the first priority was to create elements of color and design that gently stitched the rooms together seamlessly. The first challenge was the kitchen. The previous owners favored a Tuscan look:  burnt orange walls, light oak flooring, and ornate fixtures. The upper cabinets were white, the lower cabinets stained—a tiled backsplash with yellow undertones just below.

Kutash was skeptical that Hockney could soften the yellow tones in the polished granite countertops. There are a lot of countertops—both the standard “L” plus a large island. “It was overwhelming. I really didn’t want to have the expense of replacing those countertops. It was one of those times I had to trust Julie.”

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Hockney did her magic. All white cabinets, a new backsplash, all new handles and knobs, and voila! She managed to take away the yellow tones and the orange walls.  She picked a light greyish blue as the field color for most of the rooms. Inconsistent wood colors throughout the lower level were painted a deep, rich brown. The fireplaces got new brickwork, and the staircases, which were once the same light oak as the ocean of flooring, were painted to complement the room: white, with dark brown steps. Overstuffed or overly traditional elements gave way to a fresher, uncluttered, and modern look. One thing that remained consistent was the deep and charming plantation blinds along the north side of the house.

While the main living areas are beautiful, Kutash’s favorite room is the main floor master bedroom. “The suite feels as big as our whole house was in Oakland,” She says. The walls are “new gray” with a wide horizontal navy stripe behind the headboard. “It’s the room that takes my breath away every time. I just love it.”

Upstairs, each child has his or her own space. The boys share a bathroom, and the cotton candy-colored walls are gone. “Gabe can actually leave his Lego projects on the floor overnight,” Kutash says. “There was never room for that before, or a swing set. I giggled when we were able to finally buy a swing set for the children.”

In asking the children their favorite part of the house, the basement wins, hands down. A playroom with a mirrored wall offers the young gymnast a way to check posture on the portable balance beam, or for her brothers to blow off steam with the arsenal of Nerf guns. The basement’s guest room and entertainment space houses much of the California furniture. 

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“We made a number of trips to Nebraska Furniture Mart with Julie,” Kutash says. “We were able to find things on clearance too!”

Jessica and Jeff are thrilled with their decision to move to Omaha. They love the culture, the arts, and the philanthropic nature of the city. This aspect is especially significant to Jeff, who leads the Peter Kiewit Foundation. Most of all, they love the sense of community.

“It’s so amazing how much people care. They care about their schools. They care about their city. They care about each other. This is where we belong.” OmahaHome

Run, Seth, Run!

April 18, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Seth Hirsch can be seen at Lake Zorinsky by 6 a.m. most mornings. He’s out there running laps around a lake most of us would struggle to walk once. He’s driven to become the best runner he can—and he is succeeding.

“He’s by far the best in the state of Nebraska,” says Colin Johnston, track and cross country coach at Millard West.

Hirsch, now a 16-year-old junior, has run the mile in 4 minutes and 30 seconds. He has broken the 15-minute barrier in the 5K.

For some context: the median time for a runner in their 20s to complete a 5K is about 25 minutes.

Add to his amazing times the fact that Hirsch also broke both fibulas last year.

“I was probably doing too much mileage and got stress fractures,” Hirsch says. He cracked one fibula in the fall while running cross country, the other in the spring while running track. It’s not entirely surprising, given that he ran 90 miles a week.

SethHirsch2After the discovery of each stress fracture, his doctor ordered him to take some time off. Even after taking nearly two months to rest, he was able to return in time for the track season and still place third at the state meet in the 3200.

“There aren’t that many kids I’ve worked with who have worked as hard as he does,” Johnston says. “He’s a great kid.”

That hard work extends to scholastics, in which Seth has achieved a 4.5 GPA weighted, and a 4.0 GPA unweighted. The extra weight comes from AP biology, AP European history, AP environmental science, and AP government and politics.

All of this puts him in good standing to achieve that ultimate student goal…scholarship money.

“I’ve been talking to some colleges,” Hirsch says nonchalantly. “Portland, Wisconsin. Stanford, Georgetown. Columbia University in New York. All of them have good distance programs.”

Right at the moment, it’s all just talk. Once July hits, the calls will likely start to pour in. (Law mandates that July before one’s senior year is the earliest a student can be recruited.)

He’s ready for it, he’s interested in it, and he knows what to expect. His sister, Sidney Hirsch, runs at Wichita State University.

Sidney ran for her college this fall season, even though she suffered from plantar fasciitis in both feet. This affliction is an inflammation of the tissue along the bottom of the foot that connects the heel bone to the toes.

It was Sidney who got Seth into running.

“My sister ran for Omaha Racers,” Seth says of discovering he wanted to run at age 10. “I went to some practices with her and I wanted to do it.”

Seth used to play soccer, but he quit this past year to focus on running.

“I just liked it the most, so I just decided to focus on that,” Hirsch says nonchalantly.

“I thought he was pretty good,” says his mother, Liz Hirsch. “The coach and everyone else was like ‘wow—this boy can run.’ I like that he’s found the passion for this.”

Making the Cut

May 5, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Film and video production is still a rather male-centric domain, but the realm of editing is much more gender-balanced. Omaha native Taylor Tracy, a music video editor for L.A.-based London Alley, feels right at home in a long lineage of women cutters.

“At the start of the film industry, women were very prominent as film editors,” Tracy says. “It was an extremely delicate process. They used scissors to precisely cut the film. It’s interesting how that role for women as editors has carried through to today’s digital revolution.”

Tracy, whose work can be seen at TaylorTracy.com, has edited videos for Nicki Minaj, Busta Rhymes, Future, Rich Gang, Ciara, K. Michelle, SoMo, Ariana Grande, and Jess Glynne.

Even in the youth-driven music video field, the 2007 Millard West graduate is young at 25. Before landing on the Left Coast, this lifelong music lover earned her chops in music, theater, dance, and photography, teaching herself to shoot and edit video.

She heeded her creative instincts making comedic shorts that gained YouTube followings. She honed her craft at Omaha Video Solutions.

“I knew I wanted more,” says Tracy, who moved to L.A. in 2013 to intern with London Alley director Hannah Lux. It was a homecoming for Tracy, who was born in Long Beach. She shadowed Lux on set and performed post-production duties. She’s still enjoying the ride.

“I love doing music videos because you get to be so creative with your edit,” Tracy says. “With each project I’m trying to find a new style for the specific video and push and grow my style personally.”

All editing is about rhythm, perhaps especially so for music videos.

“I love to let the music guide me. I listen to the undertones of the songs, I follow what I feel in the music. If there’s a nice, long instrumental, I love to see slow motion footage, maybe a nice gradual close-up rather than very quick cuts and lots of movement.”

She says the “demanding, fast-paced environment” allows only a week to condense hours of footage into a three-minute video. Tracy also assists with visual effects and coloring. Additionally, she helps directors complete visual treatments for pitching labels and artists.

Tracy meets some of the artists whose videos she cuts. Despite their often misogynist personas, she says the male hip hop and rap musicians she’s met have been “gentlemanly-like and professional.”

The most viral of videos she’s worked on are Future’s “Move that Dope” and Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder.” Her personal favorite is Grammy-winner Jess Glynne’s “Hold My Hand.”

“I really enjoyed the pacing of it. It starts out very slow, with very long cuts. It’s like you’ve spent an entire day with Jess Glynne. I love getting inside the artist’s head and really giving the viewer a chance to see who the artist is and take them on a journey.”

Tracy has ambitions beyond editing music videos. “I’d love to experiment with television—editing a TV show.”

Directing interests her, too.

“That’d be a really great step,” she says. “Seeing the directors in action on set, I’ve learned exactly what goes into making a production happen.”

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Just a Little Respect

January 16, 2015 by

I can’t believe this,” Troy says.

“Sorry, Troy,” Nate replies.

“Yeah, me too…f**,” Troy says, using a homophobic epithet as he walks away.

And that starts it all.

Nate’s voice is full of defeat, shoulders slumped, face downcast. Even with glasses, tattered baseball cap and a plaid shirt, Troy is menacing compared to a shorter Nate.

Put yourself there. What would you do next?

This is just one scenario RESPECT, an anti-bullying group here in Omaha, poses to teenagers. Using short theatrical productions, RESPECT hopes to educate youth on how to handle abusive relationships. Standing Up, by Nick Zadina, is just one example of 14 plays these professional actors perform for schools around Nebraska and Iowa.

Executive Director Patricia Newman founded RESPECT as a problem-solving and communication tool for children of all ages. Bullying won’t ever go away, she says, but it can be decreased by education.

Newman, a clinical child physiologist, is hoping students will stop unhealthy and violent patterns early before reaching adulthood. “Kids can self-identify and change their bullying habits,” Newman believes. “The more times you hear it, it clicks.”

Just this year, the Centers for Disease Control reported 19.6 percent of high school students have been bullied sometime during the school year. Newman recalls being picked on as a child because she was poor and from a divorced home. Luckily, she says teachers made the difference by making her feel special. “The power in the classroom is amazing,” Newman says. Millard West junior Cody Janke says Standing Up was realistic and “not your average corny play you see in school.”

Once the play finishes, the actors allow students a few moments to write down anonymous questions on notecards. Greg, one of the 10 professional actors for RESPECT, pauses before responding to one student’s question, “Have you ever been bullied?”

Greg (RESPECT actors asked that only their first names be used) mentions how someone at school had once left a death threat in his locker after he talked to the bully’s girlfriend.

“I was terrified and a freshman so had no idea what to do,” Greg recalls. He ended up reporting the incident to counselors who helped the bully with his anger and jealousy.

The class is quiet and not quick to volunteer, so the RESPECT actors change things up by role-playing. One of the actors plays the part of the bully as he knocks books out of another actor’s hands.

“Okay, okay, so what would you do?” he asks the class.

One brave student, freshman Dan Catania, volunteers to role-play as the bystander. His shaggy brown hair covers his face as he picks up the books scattered on the floor.

“Dude, why did you do that?” Dan asks the actor. “Now, say you’re sorry.”

With an infectious grin, he apologizes and tells Dan “good job.”

With 251 programs each year and around 40,000 students, Newman hopes stepping into the action will teach kids from preschool to college to empower themselves and come up with their own solutions to make their lives safer.

After the RESPECT team leaves, most of the students agree bullying occurs mainly in middle school. Janke, a high school football running back, believes many teenagers outgrow these negative tendencies. Tall and muscular with a bit of a five o’clock shadow, he admits to being the bully once in middle school, although feels some of it was provoked. Now that he is older and more mature, he says he feels it isn’t worth it to put other people down.

Many students also say girls tend to be worse in middle school than boys. One of the freshman female students says boys are more willing to talk it out, while girls do everything on social media or behind someone’s back. Although statistics show boys are 1.7 times more likely than girls to bully, girls show a higher trend of victimizing others through rumors. “They (girls) are vicious,” she says with a laugh. “Guys are just like, ‘Bro, what are you doing?”

Newman agrees bullying today is deadlier because of the intensity and how quickly it happens on social media. She hopes RESPECT will give students one more tool to transform something negative into a positive.

Newman shares a touching letter she received from one boy:

“Thank you. You may have saved my life.”

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