Home ‘What scientists and engineers do every day’: High school students compete in robotics challenge
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‘What scientists and engineers do every day’: High school students compete in robotics challenge

Rebecca Barnabi
(© ipopba – stock.adobe.com)

The halls of the University of Mary Washington’s (UMW) Dahlgren Campus were filled this week with high school students and robots.

More than 100 local public and private school students from Stafford and Northern Neck will compete in the 3rd annual High School Innovation Challenge at Dahlgren on Friday and Saturday, March 1 and 2, 2024, for a cash prize, trophy, robotics kits for their school and bragging rights.

“The thing I’m looking forward to the most is getting to watch the lightbulb moments on the students’ faces, where they get a sudden idea for how to solve one of the challenges or when the program that they’ve been tweaking for an hour or so finally works on the practice mat. I love watching their faces and eyes light up when they go ‘Guys, I’ve got it!’” said Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) K-12 STEM Coordinator Tyler Truslow.

UMW, the Fredericksburg Regional Military Affairs Council, The MITRE Corporation and King George Economic Development Authority join NSWCDD in hosting the challenge.

Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division hosted the first challenge in 2022, which paved the way for the collegiate and industry challenges held in 2023. Competitions are part of the Potomac Tech Bridge, which serves as an outreach capability for NSWCDD in building a community of innovation with its partners.

“What’s notable about these events is that students not only get to demonstrate their technical knowledge and skills, but they get to solve problems, learning from their failures and building off their successes,” UMW College of Business Lecturer and Fredericksburg Regional Military Affairs Council Chairman John Burrow said. “That’s what scientists and engineers do every day. Exposing these students to this experience will hopefully inspire them to continue their STEM education and maybe, just maybe, pursue a career as a scientist or engineer and have an enduring impact on our community and our nation.”

Andy Thompson is department manager for the Expeditionary Department at The MITRE Corporation..

“As an operator of federally funded research & development centers, MITRE needs highly skilled STEM professionals to accomplish our mission of solving problems for a safer world. Sponsoring these Innovation Challenges with NSWC Dahlgren Division and UMW helps to inspire middle and high school students to choose a STEM career path and hopefully apply those skills to national security,” Thompson said.

Students are from 16 schools representing 12 school districts comprised of 22 teams to program their robots for the Engage.  Navigate.  Recover.  Gather. (ENRG) Mission. They will engage by assembling robots to safely navigate challenging terrain on a quest to recover critical hardware while gathering intel and maintaining mission awareness.

Rappahannock High School, the 2023 champion team, will return to defend their crown. A middle school team is new this year and was named champion in the inaugural Innovation Challenge @ Dahlgren: Middle School Robotics competition in February: Caroline Middle School.

The following schools will join them: Bridging Communities STEM Academy, Caroline High School, Colonial Beach High School, Courtland High School, James Monroe High School, King George High School, Massaponax High School, Mountain View High School, North Stafford High School, Northumberland High School, Spotsylvania High School, Westmoreland High School, Fredericksburg Academy and Fredericksburg Christian School.

Students will arrive on Friday at 8 a.m. followed by a kickoff at 9 a.m. and team collaboration until 5 p.m. On Saturday, they will hear from keynotes at 9 a.m. and continue to collaborate with their teams. Competition Lightning Rounds are in the afternoon followed by the awards ceremony at 4:30 p.m. The event is not open to the general public.

Truslow said the challenge builds the next generation of scientists and engineers.

“It’s one thing to learn and understand these programming skills in the classroom, but it’s something totally different to apply them to real-world problems in a team context when you’re working in a situation with some pressure. Those are the things that our scientists and engineers are doing every single day in their support of the warfighter, and we’re giving these students an incredibly unique opportunity to grow and practice their skills of teaming under pressure — while directly working with and learning from our scientists and engineers — because that’s something you can only get through experience,” Truslow said.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.