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Keizer’s first police chief passes

Robert J. Thomas
July 4, 1932 – Jan. 28, 2019

R. Thomas

Keizer’s first chief of police, Robert J. Thomas, age 86, passed away peacefully at his home with his family at his side on Jan. 28, 2019.
Robert (Bob) was born in Mt. Angel, on July 4, 1932 to Lawrence and Clara (Schmitz). Thomas and had four sisters and one brother. Bob and his family moved to a farm in Silverton and had several jobs while growing up. He learned to plow behind a horse, bale hay, pick hops, raise pigs, cows and chickens, and had a newspaper route all before graduating high school in 1950. Bob joined the U.S. Air Force at the beginning of the Korean War. He left home for Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) on his mother’s birthday, Aug. 8, 1950. He was stationed at Ent AFB in Colorado Springs, Colo., working as an A.P.E. (Air Police). That is where he met his future wife, Betty Lou Lang. They wed on Feb. 13, 1954, and were married for 65 years.
Bob will always be remembered as a bright, shining light in the various communities and churches he served. He was most proud of being the first police chief of the newly organized city of Keizer. Prior to that he was captain at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. He was a 4th degree member of the Knights of Columbus, Grand Knight at both the Salem 5060 Council and Keizer 10594 and 4th degree Assembly 900. Bob was a founding member of St. Edward Catholic Church in Keizer, where he met Rev. Charles Taaffe and together they started the Father Taaffe Foundation to support unwed mothers. He became a long term member of the board while Catholic Community Services took over the program. Bob enjoyed camping, hunting, fishing and woodworking.
He was very proud of his children, Susan (Bill) Ridgway, Ron (Kim) Thomas, and Robert Jr. II (Gina) Thomas, plus seven grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Bob was preceded in death by his parents and brother, Melvin, and by two of his own children, Robert Jr. and Brenda Lee.
Funeral services were held Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, 10:30 a.m. at St. Edward Catholic Church in Keizer with Rev. Gary Zezr officiating.
Virgil T. Golden Funeral Service assisted the family.

Soldier may be honored with stretch of highway


Of the Keizertimes

A Keizer soldier killed in Iraq in 2007 might soon have a stretch of Oregon highway named after him. 

House Concurrent Resolution 13, which is set to be considered during the current legislative session, would result in Hill’s family working with Oregon Department of Transportation officials to designate a stretch of highway in Pvt. Ryan J. Hill’s honor, said Abby Weekly, legislative director for state Rep. Bill Post. 

Post is co-sponsoring the resolution with Rep. Julie Fahey of West Eugene/Junction City. The 2015 Legislature created the process through which individuals can be recognized, Weekly said. 

Hill served with Charlie Company in Adhamiya, Iraq. At the time, the area was heavy with insurgents, and the locals were paying a steep price. Caught in the middle of warring factions, some 10 to 20 villagers a day were reportedly being killed as Sunni and Shiite waged war against each other.

Hill, 20, was driving a Humvee on Jan. 20, 2007, when an improvised explosive device detonated (IED) near the vehicle. Hill was killed and the vehicle’s gunner ended up in  critically injured. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division based in Schweinfurt, Germany. He was serving his first tour in Iraq at the time of his death.

Hill’s sense of duty took him to Iraq after graduating from the Oregon National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program in 2006. He had attended McNary High School and worked at the Keizer Albertsons prior to enrolling the Bend-based ChallNGe program. 

Prior to his death, Hill told his mother Shawna Fenison, “I’ve made my peace with God and I’m not afraid of something happening to me. My fear is that something will 

happen to one of my friends and I won’t be able to save them.”

Hill had already experienced the loss of three friends during his months abroad. The first to a sniper attack, the second to another IED and the third was killed while throwing himself on a grenade. 

“I have never cried this much in my entire life,” wrote in a blog post after the first two deaths. “Two men got taken from us way too soon. I wonder why it was them and not me.”

His strong desire to protect friends and allies led him to volunteer to drive the lead vehicle in a caravan on the day he was killed, according to his commanding officer. 

In the years since his death, Hill’s death has been recounted in a book, They Fought for Each Other by Kelly Kennedy, and a Keizer city park in Keizer Station was dedicated to him in 2013. 

Hill was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and the Combat Infantry Badge.

8-year-old volunteer honored for work


Of the Keizertimes

Giving your time, energy and effort into volunteering can make an immeasurable difference in the lives of others, especially in a community like Keizer.

Autumn Siegel learned that value at a very young age.

In December, the 8-year old second grader from Weddle Elementary was presented the first ever Keizer Little League Concessions Volunteer of the Year award for her outstanding work in the concession stand during the 2018 baseball/softball season at KLL Park.

The award was to presented to Siegel by Clint Holland, who has been in charge of operating the concession stand for the last two years.

“Usually, we don’t let kids under the age of 14 work in the concession stand, but we made an exception for her because she was fabulous,” Holland said. “People can’t believe how good she is.”

With Siegel’s father, Ryan, being the softball director for KLL and her older sister, Violet, playing softball for KLL, Siegel spent quite a bit of time at the little league facility. 

One afternoon, Siegel walked by the concession stand and offered her assistance. 

After spending the rest of the day working in the stand, Siegel realized that it was something that she really enjoyed. 

“I just like getting orders and using the cash register on the iPad,” Siegel said. “Sometimes I got to do other jobs, like make pretzels … It was fun.”

It wasn’t long before Siegel was spending long hours volunteering at the stand multiple times per week. Her willingness to help was not only greatly appreciated, it was much needed. 

“We had kind of a hard time getting volunteers, but it seemed like whenever I was in trouble up there, Autumn was there to come to the rescue,” Holland said. “There were times where it was just her and me running the whole stand.”

Siegel’s mother, Shelly, also added: “She’s like a concession stand mascot. Everyone knows who Autumn is.”

Siegel even got to a point over the summer where she could work at the concession stand all by herself. 

Some people might be skeptical of an eight-year old running the cash register without the supervision of an adult. But Siegel always proved herself to be trustworthy and even showed other people how to use the system.

“Everything always balanced out, even when she was running it by herself,” Holland said. “She didn’t make mistakes.”

During a particular Saturday in July is when Siegel shined the brightest according to Holland. 

While KLL was hosting an all-day tournament, Holland was swamped at the concession stand. Fortunately, Siegel came to the rescue.

Over the course of 11 to 12 hours, Siegel’s efficiency and effectiveness behind the counter caught the eyes of all that went to the KLL concession stand that day, which allowed her to make $51 in tips.

“The public saw how hard she was working,” Holland said. “I can’t say enough about how helpful she was that day. It made me want to do something for her to show my appreciation.”

That is when Holland got the idea to make an award for Siegel to display his gratitude.

“I brought the idea up to someone on the (KLL) committee and they loved it,” Holland said. 

Holland got a gold plaque made and presented it to Siegel in front of her teacher and classmates right before the holiday break.

“I was really shy because I don’t really like when all the eyes are on me,” Siegel said. “I was a little nervous, but I was excited at the same time.”

“I actually cried a little bit when I gave to her,” Holland added. “She was so shocked.”

Siegel will be playing softball for KLL this spring, so she might not be in the concession stand as much as she was last year. But Siegel still plans to help out whenever she can. 

“I just like helping people,” Siegel said.

Keizer’s own Speed Racer


Of No Adults Allowed

To say that 13-year-old Ryan Bese has a need for speed would be an understatement. Not only is Ryan a junior dragracer, but he also runs for cross country and track at Whiteaker Middle School. “I like to go fast,” he said.

For the past four years Ryan has been a jr. drag racer at the Woodburn Dragstrip. Ryan is in the eighth grade and currently the only jr. racer from Keizer.

He enjoys having his friends come watch him race, “it’s fun because they can experience what it’s like,” Ryan said.

Even though you have to be eight years old to be a junior racer, Ryan started way before that. “My husband worked on a professional race car team before, so that’s how he (Ryan) got started,” said Chris Bese, Ryan’s mom, “I would drag him out to the races. But he was a baby so he has no recollection of it whatsoever.”

That said, when the time came to start racing, Ryan was more than a little hesitant to start driving, “When he turned 8, we encouraged him and he said, ‘no.’ He wouldn’t even sit in the car,” Chris said.

With the help of some of his friends from the racetrack he eventually got into his first car, “They put him in the car and literally pushed him down the race track,” she said.

“I just didn’t want to do it because I was worried about crashing,” Ryan said. That fear has been pushed aside now because he’s been doing it for such a long time. In his four years of racing the closest he’s come to crashing was clipping a wall.

There are three categories at the Woodburn Dragstrip, Jr. Storm, Jr. Thunder and Jr. Lighting. The Jr. Storm category is for ages 6-10, Jr. Thunder is for ages 10-14 and Jr. Lighting is 13-17. Ryan is currently transitioning form Jr. Thunder to Jr. Lighting. 

In 2014 (his first year), he won the Rookie of the Year Award, and he’s been winning ever since. In 2015, he placed second in the World of Speed for Jr. Storm, the following year he placed second in the World of Speed for Jr. Thunder. He was the Fall ET Jr. Thunder Champion in 2016.

He won the 2018 NHRA ET finals Division 6 Jr. Thunder Champion award in the summer series. He then switched over to Jr. Lighting for the fall series and won the 2018 World of Speed Fall ET Jr. Lightening Champion. The final race became known as, “the Ryan show.” Ryan Dick, his competitor and best friend, was racing against him for the championship. Even though Dick lost, the boys are still close friends. “They’re good kids, they support each other, they cheer each other on. Sportsmanship is big,” Chris said.

That’s not all, Ryan was also voted the most improved racer this year by his peers at the Woodburn Dragstrip in 2018. Ryan has competed on the ET Finals Woodburn Team for four years in a row, first in Boise, then Canada, Woodburn and Boise again. Even though he’s been on the finals team four years in a row, this was his first year winning.

He said his reason he keeps going back is, “the sweet feeling of winning.” 

His biggest supporters have been his parents, which is no surprise considering they literally pushed him to do it. Although some parents would be concerned about safety, the Bese family has total faith in their safety gear. “I actually feel he’s safer in his car than in mine,” Chris said.

His sponsors are, Wayne Parker’s Auto Electric, Taylor Motorsports Products and Westfield Motorsports.

Chamber members preview 2019 legislative pipeline


Of the Keizertimes

Details are still hazy on potential legislation that could have a major impact on business during the 2019 Oregon legislative session, but Jenny Dresler, director of grassroots with Public Affairs Counsel, tried to read the tea leaves during a Keizer Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday, Jan. 29. 

With a Democratic wave sweeping through the Legislature in November 2018, “legislators feel they’ve been given a mandate to push an agenda,” Dresler said. “One can look at the election results and understand that, but businesses will get steamrolled if they do not speak up.”

Dresler said Public Affairs Counsel, a lobbying firm, and Oregon State Chamber of Commerce are monitoring developments on several issues. 

Some of the legislative movements sparking heightened interest include:

• Tax proposals involving hospitals and insurance providers to cover the costs of Medicaid.

• Cap-and-trade discussions that revolve around how the state will manage harmful emissions.

• A proposed $2 billion revenue package to support reforms throughout public schools. 

• A paid family and medical leave tax that might affect businesses as small as one employee. 

• Proposals that could create increased liability concern for small business.

• Increases to the corporate minimum tax and excise taxes on goods like alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. 

• A subsidizing tax on businesses with more than 50 employees enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan (OHP).

Dresler said the cap-and-trade discussions often appear to affect large manufacturing, but legislation could reach much further down the line. 

“The Oregon Farm Bureau is concerned about fuel prices, natural gas and electric. If you are an energy-intensive business, through something like refrigeration, it could be a significant policy,” Dresler said. 

Dresler said the state chamber of commerce is sending out newsletters every Monday with calls to action on specific proposals. Business owners can sign up for the newsletter at She also suggested using a new service called Voter Voice,, to track legislation as it moves through the Capitol. 

Regardless of how business owners choose to get involved, she said, messages should be crafted around personal stories. 

“Go [to a legislator] and tell a personal story. Tell the stories to your representatives and senators and they will talk to colleagues,” Dresler said. 

She urged constituents to personalize form letters whenever possible.

“You are all playing an out-sized role in your community. Testimony is incredibly effective, either in person or in a letter, but keep it personal,” she said. 

Salem hosting Golden Gloves Tournament this weekend


Of the Keizertimes

The 2019 Oregon Golden Gloves Championship Tournament will take place at the Salem Armory this weekend and will feature the best amateur boxers the state has to offer.

The tournament starts Friday, Feb.1 with the elimination round taking place at 6:30 p.m.  The championship round will begin the following day at 3 p.m.

General admission tickets for Friday’s elimination round will be $15 ($5 for kids under the age of 12) and $20 on Saturday ($10 for kids under 12). 

Keizer’s Apolinar Lopez will be competing in the 132-pound division at the 2019 Oregon Golden Gloves Tournamentat the Salem Armory on Friday, Feb. 1 and Saturday, Feb. 2.

Ringside floor seating will be $35.

This is a non-profit event with the proceeds going towards travel expenses for the tournament winners that move on to the Regional Tournament in Las Vegas. 

Thirty-seven fighters are scheduled to be on the lineup card this weekend.

Keizer resident Dan Dunn, who has been the director of Oregon Golden Gloves since last year, believes that a lot of these athletes will be competing at the next level.

“These guys are the elite of the elite as far as Oregon amateurs are concerned,” Dunn said. 

“This is their last stop before turning pro. These guys are good.”

One of the main headliners for this tournament is Salem’s Omar Murrillo.

Murrillo, who is a 2020 Olympic hopeful, was the 2018 Oregon Golden Gloves Tournament winner in the 165-pound division and also received the Golden Warrior Award — which is given to the top overall athlete at the tournament. 

“Omar is one of those guys that you knew was going to be special,” Dunn said. “Everyone shows up expecting him to win. All the pros know he’s coming up.”

Apolinar Lopez, who is from Keizer, will also be one of the main contenders — he was the 132-pound winner in last year’s Golden Gloves tournament. 

“(Lopez) is pretty graceful when he moves around,” Dunn said. 

“He has great situational awareness in the ring.”

Salem resident Jon Pena (114 lbs) is the other local fighter that will be competing in this event. 

Along with spending the last four months organizing this event, Dunn also has been training Murrillo, Lopez and Pena. 

It may be a stressful task, but for Dunn, it really is all about the passion he has for the sport that he loves.

“What I love about amateur boxing is it’s like one big family,” Dunn said. “People are going to see excellent fighting, but you will also see excellent sportsmanship.” “

“These guys love each other….They also know how to compete at a high level. It’s going to be very exciting to watch.”

McNary upsets South Salem

McNary guard Nate Meithof goes up for a shot after driving into the lane in the Celtics 59-57 victory over South Salem on Thursday, Jan. 31. 


Of the Keizertimes

McNary boys basketball head coach Ryan Kirch has had a number of big victories throughout his eight years with the Celtics.

But the win he got on Thursday will stick in his mind for a long time.

Boston Smith led the Celtics with 19 points as McNary (12-5, 5-2 Mountain Valley Conference) went on the road and knocked second-ranked South Salem (13-4, 6-1), beating the Saxons 59-57 and keeping themselves in position for the MVC title.

“I’m just really proud of our guys. Each and every one of them gave of themselves for the betterment of the team,” Kirch said. “It’s one of the best wins I’ve ever had as a coach. To watch them be so happy and excited is a joy to watch.”

Nate Meithof was also in double-figures with 14 points and Alfredo Villareal added 13 pints in the victory.

“Honestly, for me, this is the best win I’ve ever had in my entire life,” Villareal said. “We all played so great together and I am just proud of this team.”

Villareal had been playing limited minutes coming into this game after suffering a foot injury in January. But in his first game back in the starting lineup, the senior point guard made his presence felt almost immediately.

After knocking down a mid-range jumper to start the game, Villareal hit an open 3-pointer right of the key on the next trip to give McNary the early momentum.

Meithof and Smith each added hoops to put the Celtics ahead 9-7 midway through the opening period, but a pair of offensive fouls by Smith sent the McNary big man to the bench.

However, Kirch entered Smith back into the contest later in the period and the senior post threw down a monster jam after the Celtics beat the overly-aggressive defensive press from the Saxons.

South Salem forced numerous McNary turnovers throughout the game with their aggressive double-teams on the ball and three-quarter-courts traps. However, the Celtics also got a large supply of easy hoops after taking advantage of the Saxons being a little too greedy defensively.

“We spent a lot of the last two days working on all the fundamentals of handling pressure,” Kirch said. “We don’t talk about it as a press-break, we refer to it as press-attack. I’m a big believer that, if you attack it, you got to make them pay. If they don’t pay, their just going to keep on doing it.”

“We did have some turnovers, but we got some easy buckets because of their pressure.”

Both teams went back and forth into the midway part of the second period. But with the Saxons up 23-22, South Salem was hit with their second technical foul of the game when Eric Lungu got in the face of a McNary player after the whistle.

After Meithof hit one of the two technical foul shots, McNary’s Devyn Schurr knocked down a straightaway triple to give the Celtics the lead back at 26-23. A lay-in from Noah Hudkins and a pair of free throws from Meithof helped the Celtics go on a 7-1 run to take a 30-24 lead late in the period.

“We knew it was going to be chippy. These two teams have been at the top of the league for the last five years,” Kirch said. “When (South Salem) started talking a little bit, our guys just maintained their composure throughout the entire thing.”

The Saxons cut the lead to three with under a minute remaining before halftime, but Villareal ended the second quarter with back-to-back buckets in a 20-second span, extending McNary’s advantage to 34-27 at the break.

“We had so much energy going into the locker room. I knew at that moment that we were going to win this game.”

A three-point play from Smith early in the third period gave McNary their largest lead of the game at 41-29. Smith picked up his third foul midway through the quarter, but that didn’t stop his aggressiveness on the offensive end.

Smith scored two more times before the end of the period, including a highlight-reel finish off a lob from Meithof.

“I just have to play my game,” Smith said. “I’m not going to change for the refs and I’m not going to change for the other team.”

“My teammates definitely got me open with being ultra-aggressive driving in from the three-point line.”

The Celtics entered the fourth quarter with a 49-41 advantage. Now, the only thing on their mind was to hang on.

One thing that allowed McNary to do that was their tenacious 2-1-2 zone, a defense that has become prominent for the Celtics over the last few weeks.

South Salem had to settle for long jumpers and were denied any second-chance opportunities thanks to the rebounding abilities of Hudkins and Smith.

McNary also held South Salem’s star guard Jaden Nielsen-Skinner in check all night as the Portland State commit made just two field goals for the game.

“It’s different than what a lot of people see, so it’s hard to prepare for a little bit,” Kirch said about the unique zone defense. “It certainly gave (South Salem) a lot of trouble tonight.”

What nearly killed McNary down the stretch was foul shooting. The Celtics held a 58-52 with 1:30 remaining in the contest and were looking to put the game on ice. However, they missed six out of seven free throws to close out the contest — including a pair of front end 1-and-1 misses.

After Nielsen-Skinner hit a couple of free throws to cut the Saxons deficit to 59-57 with 8.1 seconds left, Villareal was fouled on the inbounds and was sent to the line. But Villareal missed both shots, giving South Salem the opportunity to force overtime or win with a 3-pointer.

South Salem’s Trey Galbraith tried a step-back triple on the Saxons ensuing possession, but Meithof was able to extend every bit of his 6-foot-4 inch frame to partially block the shot.

Ryan Brown caught the carom for the Saxons and threw up a desperation shot in mid-air at the buzzer, but the ball spun around the rim and fell out of the cylinder.

Right as gravity brought the ball back down to the hardwood, the McNary student section rushed the floor, celebrating the monumental victory.

“The crowd definitely brought the energy for the whole game,” Smith said.

McGee memorial slated Saturday

A memorial for Jerry McGee, a longtime volunteer, former city councilor and man of many hats, will take place at the Keizer Civic Center Saturday, Feb. 2. 

McGee passed Jan. 11, at age 85, after a battle with cancer. The memorial is open to the public from 1 to 5 p.m. Programming will begin at 2 p.m. and last about an hour. 

In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations in McGee’s name to the Keizer Fire Foundation, P.O. Box 20183, Keizer, OR 97307.

The memorial will include bagpipe performances by Jennifer Campbell and remembrances by son Marty McGee, Bill Quinn, Cathy Monroe, Hank Tarter, grandson Ian Hunt, Marc Adams, grandson Wes Jordan, daughter Cathy Jordan, former Keizer mayor Lore Christopher and current Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark. 

Light refreshments will be provided by K’s Catering. 

Additionally, McGee is survived by son Marty McGee, daughters Tammy McGee, Cathy Jordan and  Wendy Hunt; grandchildren Wes Jordan, Brianna Hunt and Ian Hunt; longtime friend Diane Monroe; brother Dennis McGee; and sisters Doris Clark and Norma Benson. 

Big first half propels Celts to victory


Of the Keizertimes

McNary’s Boston Smith wasn’t sure if he was going to go in this one.

The senior post banged up his knee in the Celtics 73-63 overtime loss to Sprague on Thursday, Jan. 24 and was deemed a game-time decision for Saturday’s contest against Mountain View.

Despite not being at 100 percent, Smith decided that he needed to come through for his team.

“I knew that me playing would be a huge impact,” Smith said. 

Smith led the way with a game-high 23 points — 15 of which came in the second half — and propelled the McNary boys hoops team to a 74-60 victory over Mountain View.

“(Mountain View) was keying on me in the first half, but I was able to stay calm and let things come to me,” Smith said. 

Griffin Oliveira had 12 points for the Celtics and knocked down four shots from behind the arc. Noah Hudkins also scored 12 for McNary.

Hudkins was the one that got it going to start the game. After getting an easy hoop thanks to a beautifully set up pick-and-roll, Hudkins buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key to put McNary on top 12-6.

Hudkins and Smith would each convert lay-ups moments later to extend McNary’s advantage to 16-6.

“It felt good to go out there and just run and get it going,” Hudkins said. “I think I just came out with a different mindset and I played with an aggressive attitude.”

The Celtics kept their lead at 10 to end the quarter after Nate Meithof concluded the period with a left-handed flush off a steal.

A bucket in the paint from Junior Walling, plus a baseline triple from Oliveira gave McNary the 29-15 lead early in the second quarter. Mountain View came back with an 8-2 run to get the deficit down to single-digits, but the Celtics would respond with a run of their own.

Riley Flores, Alfredo Villareal and Oliveira all knocked treys during McNary’s 11-0 scurry, which extended the McNary lead to 42-23.

Whether it was hitting open shots from the perimeter or getting easy buckets down low, the McNary offense seemed to be firing on all cylinders in the first 16 minutes of the contest.

“We have a lot of guys that can make plays,” McNary head coach Ryan Kirch said. “We want to play an inside-out game and we trust our big guys to move the basketball around when they are doubled-teamed.”

The Celtics went into the break up 46-27, but late in the period, Smith had to be attended to on the sideline after appearing to re-aggravate the injury on his right knee. 

Smith came out to start the third quarter with a knee brace, but the pain he was in didn’t seem to effect his production as he scored three buckets in the paint and ended the period with nine points. 

“(Smith) was dominant inside,” Kirch said. “He is a really mature kid and his leadership has been great.”

The Celtics did a poor job of taking care of the basketball in the final period, which allowed Mountain View to make the score a little more respectable. 

Kirch hopes that his team will clean up on the turnovers as the Celtics head into the second half of their Greater Valley Conference schedule, but he was ultimately pleased with how his team performed overall. 

“Obviously, we need to get a little bit better closing out games, but I’m proud of the way they played,” Kirch said.

McNary hosts Summit at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. 

Celts find droids they’ve been looking for

Round robots unlock physics lessons


Of the Keizertimes

Jessica Graham has been teaching science at McNary since 2005 and takes pride in having engaging and fun activities in her curriculum.

But she may have hit the jackpot when she introduced Spheros to her science class earlier in December.

A Sphero, roughly the size of an orange and otherwise known as a spherical robot, is an electronically charged, mobile, ball-shaped robot that is wrapped in polycarbonate and can be controlled using a smartphone or tablet. It was originally released in 2013 and it was featured in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. 

While several smartphone apps and games have been created for the platform, Graham uses the Spheros to teach the velocity unit to McNary freshmen in her honors physics and chemical systems class.

“It’s definitely a unique way to learn,”  McNary student Vanessa Orlov said. “I’m a big science geek, but I never thought that I would be doing something like this in high school.”

“There’s a lot of trial-and-error, but it’s really fun.”

With the tap of a finger, you can command a Sphero to go up to five miles and even get in to move on water. It makes pinpoint turns and can even do several different flips and tricks.

The Sphero can be used as a fun and playful toy, but it also incorporates significant STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) capabilities in the device, which is why Graham wanted to bring them into her classroom.

Graham got the idea to bring Spheros to McNary after going to a conference for the Oregon Science Teachers Association (OSTA) in Newport earlier in the school year. 

After borrowing a set of Spheros from the Salem-Keizer School District TAG Department (Talented and Gifted), Graham introduced them to her kids.

“I wanted (my students) to get past just working with an equation,” Graham said. “I wanted them to construct the program to tell the Sphero what to do. The kids went from just learning about velocity, to actually programming a robot to do the velocity lab.”

After their first activity, Graham saw her students test scores improve drastically, which was all the convincing that she and the science department needed to buy a set of Spheros for the school. 

Even though the students in Graham’s class have been working with Spheros for only a short period of time, they already have done multiple unique group projects with the device  — with the most popular being the Martian-Man Challenge.

Graham gave her students the scenario of a martian miner who is stranded on Mars and needs to be rescued using the Spheros. 

By writing a computer program to test the velocity of the Sphero over a set distance and learning how to refine the computer program to increase accuracy of data collection, the students were able to “rescue” a stranded martian miner — which is just a small toy person — using the Sphero to get the miner back to its home-base following a set course that included several stops and sharp turns.

The students also had to construct straws and pipe cleaners together to carry their martian miner on the Sphero. 

“There was a lot of independent learning involved. I didn’t tell them to program anything beyond the first day. They had to figure it out,” Graham said. “It took a lot of problem solving and skill-building within the groups.”

Eventually, the project turned into a friendly class competition to determine which team could develop the most accurate and fastest computer program to safely transport the martian miner on the course.

“Learning about velocity and acceleration in the normal way, to me, would be more boring and less fun. But with the Spheros, I actually want to know how this stuff works,” McNary student Sage Allen said. 

“On the last day, of the Martian-Man Challenge, my group was able to take a couple seconds off our time by just changing some minor things. It was really cool to see how changing the speed of something just slightly could effect the way (the Sphero) goes around the course.”

The students have also used the Spheros to test the First Law of Thermodynamics — which looks at the transfer of kinetic energy through collisions. 

In the coming months, Graham plans to have her students design a computer program and engineer a corresponding roller coaster to demonstrate kinetic versus potential energy.

Along with the obvious science aspect, Graham has been pleased with how the Sphero projects have allowed the opportunity for her students to successfully work as a team.

“Not only were students working to work out how to program their Spheros with the correct coding and math, but they also taught each other how to problem solve their way through the math and code,” Graham said.