Last Saturday, the gym at Prospect Heights Middle School pulsed with music as hundreds of students in lab jackets, Harry Potter-themed wizard costumes and a variety of unusual hats pitted their robots against those of other teams.
Sponsored by a nonprofit called FIRST Chesapeake, the event was completely different from an old-fashioned science fair. The rules of the robotics tournament allowed participants to continue working on their entries between rounds and confer with their coaches. The result was an energy level equal to that of an exciting basketball game. Perched on the bleachers, a sizable audience of family members watched the kids strut their STEM stuff.
According to Jessica Sarver, coordinator of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program for Orange County Public Schools, there were 50 teams, mostly from Virginia but with one team from Maryland and another from Pennsylvania, competing in the day-long, qualifying tournament. She explained that the goal was to qualify for the state tournament in February—and, by the end of the day, the Orange County High School (OCHS) robotics team made it to the semifinal round and thus earned an appearance in the state event.
With judges hovering and announcers enthusiastically narrating the face-offs between teams, shiny, energetic robots moved cubes from one place to another. The race required the machines to duck under a bar as they zipped back and forth across their competition area. The students operating them by remote control were the “drivers,” but all the team members took part in programming and building the contraptions. Throughout the day, team members consulted with each other and their coaches as they tweaked their entries.
Qualifying for the state tournament may have been the goal, but having fun and cheerfully learning from their missteps were happy byproducts of the occasion for all of the approximately 500 students involved.
Members of the OCHS Hornets robotics team wore blue and orange antennae attached to their safety goggles, and the wondrously named Mustachio Peanuts of Prospect Heights Middle School sported neon-yellow shirts emblazoned with their school mascot, the yellow jacket. Meanwhile, the Neon Drones of Locust Grove Middle School milled about in their bright orange shirts and caps.
For OCHS seniors Daniel Lauber and Joanie Zummo, the beauty of robotics lies in the collaborative nature of the design and building process—and even in the competition itself.
“Everyone is going to help you,” said Lauber of all the students and teachers who share his enthusiasm for building hard-working, efficient robots.
If not for his involvement in team robotics, he said, “I would probably still be playing computer games at home.”
A three-year member of the OCHS robotics team, Zummo said she enjoys watching the performance of robots made by other teams as much as those she has helped create.
Being on the team “has advanced my knowledge of engineering and programming,” she said, and piqued her interest in a career in digital forensics.
Both Zummo and Lauber commended teacher Laurie Jamerson, who leads the OCHS robotics team.
“She gives us free rein for our ideas, but she’ll also let us fail,” Zummo said, noting that she and her teammates inevitably learn from their mistakes.
“She’s super-encouraging,” Lauber added. “She’s pushing you to constantly get better.”
Leighann Scott Boland, executive director and director of development for FIRST Chesapeake, said the nonprofit uses the robotic competitions as a means of promoting STEM education across Virginia, Maryland and Washington and teaching “life skills” such as creativity, teamwork, leadership and communication.
She pointed out that participants include children who are homeschooled and some who are on community-based teams, as well as those representing their schools.
Faces in the crowd included Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Cecil Snead. Wearing a tie emblazoned with multiple images of Albert Einstein’s face, Snead expressed his satisfaction with the event, which he said provided “a safe place for students to think creatively and critically.”
Snead, who taught math early in his career, said he considers Einstein a STEM hero and a “key innovator of our time.”
Looking around the room full of happy, revved-up young coders and robot-builders, he added, “We’re going to have the next generation of innovators coming from this crowd.”