Robotics Programs Benefit Kids, W.Va.’s Image

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FAIRMONT — West Virginia does robotics better than any state — even Michigan, where every high school has robotics. The reason is a collaboration coordinated by an effort in Fairmont: The West Virginia Robotics Alliance (WVRA) located at the NASA Independent Verification & Validation Educator Resource Center.

Todd Ensign, program manager of the ERC, and his staff train teachers and parent volunteers to coach students from kindergarten through college in building and programming robots. The WVRA oversees 11 different programs and runs 30 tournaments.

In six years, robotics programs in the state have grown to include Junior FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO® League, FIRST LEGO® League, FIRST Tech Challenge, FIRST Robotics Competition, VEX IQ, VEX Robotics Competition, VEX U, Skills USA and Zero Robotics.

Participation has grown from 55 teams the first year to almost 150. Registration for some events sells out in as little as 90 minutes.

Teams not only do super-cool things, they also win at them.

Zero Robotics culminates in a competition that takes place aboard the International Space Station. The best teams submit code they have written to control robots on the ISS. Last year, a West Virginia team tied for first place in the world.

The year’s Mountaineer Area Robotics Team 2614 in Morgantown won the Chairman’s Award — the top honor — at the FIRST annual championship, making it the 26th member of the contest’s Hall of Fame.

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“One of my personal goals is to increase the external knowledge and belief that West Virginia is a progressive, forward-thinking place to come for robotics education and competition,” Ensign said. “People outside our state are impressed by how we manage our facilities and by the knowledge of our staff.”

Robotics programs from other states are noticing because they come to West Virginia to compete.

This past summer Ensign’s team hosted an international robotics competition at Fairmont State University. “We held the FIRST Lego League Mountain State Invitational. Over 800 people from 14 states and Canada, Brazil and Uruguay came here for four days. It truly showcased all the best West Virginia has to offer.”

Besides after-school and in-school instruction, there are also five-week summer camps, including one for the World Robot Olympiad.

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Involvement is not limited to traditional public or private schools. Last year, the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind in Romney fielded a team.

Robotics is a team sport for people who don’t play ball, said Lorene Lilly, who coaches one of Fairmont Catholic School’s three teams and co-coaches a second.

“Kids feel more connected to the school,” she said. “It gives them something they can do after school, and many of them have never been part of a team before.”

Lilly helped Nora Tobin take the team, No Signal, to a second-place finish in the FIRST LEGO® League state tournament.

“Our motto is ‘If you’re not failing, you’re not trying’,” Lilly said. “I think that’s the first time they hear that. That it’s OK to fail. We tell them, ‘Fail. Then write down what you did wrong and then try it again’.”

The project is about more than playing with robots. The teams also demonstrate an understanding of the program’s core values, which include gracious professionalism, and brainstorm a solution to a real-world problem.

Christi Chambers, executive director of the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Diversion and Transition Programs (ODTP), said students enjoy being challenged.

“More importantly, there is great understanding that occurs when the learner is allowed to make mistakes and learn from them,” Chambers said. “Robotics is not about getting the answer right or wrong, it is about applying learning and making adjustments to improve outcomes.”

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The Robotics Alliance works with the ODTP to share robotics with each of the 700-plus children living at the 21 residential schools in the state.


“Students learn differently; students greatly benefit from a multisensory approach to learning.”

Chambers said. “Robotics implementation has allowed students in residential placements to access high-quality instruction that is both rigorous and relevant with a hands-on approach. Students have voiced the large amount of math required to complete the assigned robotics tasks are the first time they have been successful with equations and multi-steps problems.”

Part of the program follows up when a student returns to his or her home school. Members of Ensign’s staff, whose salaries are paid by the WVDE, help start a robotics team in that school with training and $2,000 worth of equipment as long as the returning student is a member.

Now, the collaboration is trying to keep kids out of trouble.

A truancy diversion program is using robots in two Monongalia middle schools and one elementary school in Nicholas County. “The kids love it; they can’t wait to get to school,” Ensign said.

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