On Thursday (April 26), 28 West Virginia high school students will know what it’s like to be at the top of their game.
They’ve fought hard to get to this point: competing against the best in the world on skill. And for weeks they’ve created and tweaked their robot, Marvin V. Now it’s time to perform.
At West Virginia University, these high school students in the Mountaineer Area RoboticS team and their mentors have done more than make a robot as part of the FIRST Robotics Competition against more than 2,300 other teams. They’ve come through it changed, and so has West Virginia.
Kari DeMicco, 16, is a junior at University High School in Morgantown. After joining a FIRST Lego League team for those ages 9-14, she nurtured her interest in science, was mentored by the high school team at WVU, and is now one of them. Since she’s been on the Mountaineer Area RoboticS team, she’s decided that through mentoring the 41 middle school robotics teams and conducting outreach elsewhere in West Virginia, she wants to be a 4-H Extension agent to assist these youth for a long time to come.
“There are some kids that have joined our team that originally didn’t plan to go to college,” DeMicco said. “The program inspired them. Even if they don’t go into the engineering field, they’re still doing something positive with their life.”
All alumni of the high school team have gone on to attend college, and they all have received full or partial scholarships. If they attend college at WVU, they can be seen mentoring the next generation of students who build robots and come away with so much more.
The trip to St. Louis is to compete against 396 other teams, but they’ve already taken most of the journey. Weeks before the regional competition, the team got nervous.
“It’s really scary actually because they only give us a six-week time limit to build our robot,” she said.
These students pray for snow days for a non-traditional reason: to work on their robot. There wasn’t as much snow this year, but every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, the students got together for hourssometimes staying until the early morning hours on weekendsto bring Marvin V to life.
“Our robot is awesome,” she said. “It’s competing better than most robots there. It is a huge challenge, but it was really, really exciting.”
This year’s task was to design and build a robot that would shoot basketballs to consistently go through a hoop. Everybody had a part in building the robot, but not in the same way.
-Kari DeMicco, 16
MARS tea member
Some drew plans, others worked construction in a room at the WVU Department of Physics. Some programmed the robot to move, including using Kinect technology to move Marvin on the court. Others raised thousands of dollars to take the team to competitions and worked with sponsors. Still others like DeMicco handled publicity, steered the team’s educational efforts and ultimately helped win the team the highest award possible at the regional competition in Raleigh, N.C. the Regional Chairman’s award.
This award speaks to how well the team keeps program alumni involved, raises funds and supports the entire point of this program: draw youth into the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
WVU’s MARS team is affiliated with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a non-profit organization designed to encourage students to pursue STEM skills while building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills. FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen, creator of the Segway. At the St. Louis event, Scime was named FIRST’s Mentor of the Year.
According to an independent Brandeis University study, high school-aged participants in the organization when compared with their similarly talented peer groups are more than three times as likely to major in engineering; roughly 10 times as likely to have an apprenticeship, internship or co-op job in their freshman year; twice as likely to pursue a career in science and technology; and twice as likely to volunteer in their communities.
Turning numbers around
Alex Stout, a WVU freshman majoring in secondary education was on the team as a high school student from the beginning, in part because his uncle Phil Tucker, a staff member in the physics department, was helping to lead the team. He’s now a mentor to the current crop of high school students.
Once on the team, Stout was treated as an adult who could get things done. And in his four years there, he found his mission. He’s going to be a teacher. And he and the team are going to change the 2010 statistic that says only 16 out of every 100 West Virginians complete any form of post-secondary education.
“That’s a number that we really want to change by starting programs like this around the state,” Stout said.
And they’ve done that. The robotics program is now in 23 counties across the state (with one in southwestern Pennsylvania) and every year the number of counties increases. The goal, he says, is to have a presence in every county.
“Yeah, the robot’s really cool, and it’s really exciting, and it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “But after the competition is over, all of our efforts are focused on getting more kids involved around the state.”
WVU Department of Physics Chair Earl Scime started the team in 2008 with Tucker and five students, but middle school robotics teams have been active in the state since 2003. Both middle and high school teams from West Virginia have gone to regional and world championships for various tasks.
This year had a glorious payback at the Pittsburgh regional when MARS and their partner teams won the competition.
“Everybody was basically jumping up and down, hug-tackling,” DeMicco said. “Everybody was seeing that the work they had put in this season was rewarded. It was a dream come true for us because we haven’t won a regional since our first year.”
The MARS team has had the same talented, hard-working students in previous years.
“The last two years we’ve had very competitive machines and just really bad luck,” Scime said.
At last year’s regional competition in South Carolina, a partner team received a penalty in competition and both teams weren’t able to win the tournament. But the experience was a win in a different sense. The students on the MARS team and on the partner team became close friends in the light of catastrophe and at least one of the partner team’s students from New Jersey will attend WVU in the fall of 2012 as an engineering student and will also work with MARS.
Scime knows that not all of the students will go into science and math. But when they enter college, they’ll know how to engineer a robot, write software, solve problems, raise funds, give a professional presentation and promote their group on the Web.
The students often work 40-hour weeks on top of school and homework as they create the robot and tackle hurdles, Scime said.
“From my perspective, the thing that they get out of this is that it takes a lot of really hard work to do something this complex,” he said. “This is the sort of effort it takes to create a Microsoft or a Google.”
At the end of all of this, they are more than ready for college. Scime said they know what it takes to be successful and he hires some of them in his research group once they come to WVU.
But they still have the world competition ahead.
“We are playing with the big guys this year,” DeMicco said. “It’s not going to be a little match. We’re going to up against some of the top teams in the world. There will be 396 teams at the Championships. All of them had to qualify somehow and they are the best of the best.”
This ultimate competition is also scary, yet fun.
“Even if we don’t win, we’re going to be known, and we’re still going to have fun,” she said.
By Diana Mazzella
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