Keegan Kearl tapped out calculations on his cellphone while Christopher Ashley and Rodrigo Alexander Veliz hunched over a laptop. All three, along with their Spotsylvania High School teammates, were intent on making a robot do their bidding.
The teens were among more than 70 students representing 12 districts – from Richmond to North Stafford, and throughout the Northern Neck – at last weekend’s début Innovation Challenge @Dahlgren, conceived as an annual event. Fredericksburg Christian School took home the top prize – $3,000, a ginormous trophy and a year’s worth of bragging rights – in the two-day robotics-style competition aimed at boosting STEM learning.
“This is an opportunity to show how important these skills and capabilities are,” University of Mary Washington College of Business Lecturer John Burrow told the competitors at the start of the contest, held at UMW’s Dahlgren Campus. “Your goals are important to the nation, the region and the community.”
Fifteen teams from 13 public, private and governor’s schools employed a collection of skills – Python coding, sensor integration, navigation, detection, command and control – to establish communication with an “EV3” robot on wheels. Their charge was to program the mechanism to maneuver a mat, navigating the “sea,” avoiding “land masses” and “civilian freighters,” and detecting, acquiring and acting on a target.
“We’ve always wanted to try something like this,” said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Doug French. He’s a JROTC instructor at Lancaster High School, which took second place, winning $1,500 to invest in their school’s STEM initiatives. “If you get students interested in programming, who knows?” French said. “There’s a lot of jobs out there.”
Microprocessing kits were delivered to participating schools, and mentors from STEM professions were assigned to teams. A host of elected officials, school board members, business leaders and other VIPs were on hand to cheer on the teams.
“I realized that science was all around me,” Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Technical Advisor Candi Hudson – who won the 2021 Women of Color STEM Award – said as she gave a touching account of her childhood discovery of technological disciplines. “Do not be afraid to seek solutions and make progress. These analytic skills will be our future.”
Judging assessed presentation, navigation, creativity and more. Bridging Communities Governor’s School in New Kent took third place, earning $500.
“It has given me experience I wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise,” said Susan Randall, a student at King George High School and Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School. Her team worked to navigate issues – turn radius, stopping distance, performance time – and complete the mission.
“The first day was challenging, but we finally started figuring things out,” said Stephen Haug, also part of the King George team, which contemplated making their robot sing “Happy Birthday” to meet the creativity criteria.
Public and private industries – UMW; the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division; MITRE Corporation; and the Fredericksburg Regional Military Affairs Council – came together to make the event possible. Organizers hope it’s the start of a partnership also focused on engaging college students and small businesses.
“This is the beginning of great things to come,” said UMW President Troy Paino, who pointed to the value of STEM learning in everything from national security to regional economy. “But just as important,” he told the students, “for your success, for your ability to thrive in this democracy.”