The Free Lance-Star: Second annual event takes Innovation Challenge @ Dahlgren full STEM ahead


When Rappahannock High School received materials to construct a robot for the second annual High School Innovation Challenge @ Dahlgren, physics and math teacher Preston Ailor noticed students became frustrated.

They were unable to code the robot for motion and some were ready to give up before sophomore Ricardo Alvarez stepped in. “The next thing you know, Ricardo sits it on the floor and it is running around the classroom like a pet,” Ailor said. “He is just a wizard with it.”

Alvarez put his wizardry on display, helping Rappahannock land the top spot at the Innovation Challenge held March 31 to April 1 at the University of Mary Washington’s Dahlgren Campus.

Designed to engage students with STEM learning, the challenge welcomed 22 teams from 19 schools across the Fredericksburg region, from New Kent to Stafford and throughout the Northern Neck.

NSWCDD Technical Director Dale Sisson Jr., said the goal of the event is to encourage future leaders to serve their nation.

“It is our job to make sure we remain the strongest Navy that the nation and the world will ever see,” Sisson said while addressing the audience. “To do that, we must have a strong pipeline of talent. So I applaud you all for taking your time to come here and show off your skills.”

Students assembled 10-inch long, 8-inch wide and 5-inch tall robots that had eight minutes to navigate a maze, take photos of intelligence objects, recover an object and transfer it to an exfiltration zone in the competition called Special Technical Object Recovery Mission (STORM).

Rappahannock scored 210.3 points to earn the first-place prize of $3,500 and hold off defending champion Fredericksburg Christian School, which finished second, earning $2,500. One of two teams from King George High School placed third, taking home $1,500.

“I think coding is very important for a small, rural school like ours,” Ailor said. “Our entire school is the size of some of these schools’ graduating class. So it is pretty neat that we have these hidden gems.”

Interest in the event increased significantly from the challenge’s debut one year ago when 12 schools and 14 teams participated.

New this year was Caroline High School, which competed with an all-female team. Fresh off a six-week coding course, Melanie Squires, Olivia Monahan and Karianah Carroll plucked through a tangle of wires, faced down a faulty expansion plate and wrangled moody motion sensors to complete the critical mission.

“We worked through a lot of challenges just trying to experiment with the robot,” Squires said. “We are completely new to this, but I feel like we have come a long way.”

Virginia Del. Margaret Ransone emphasized the importance of STEM learning and expertise and praised the event’s more than 100 participants during Day 2 opening remarks.

“You are really making a huge impact on the future of [NSWCDD] and the future of this country,” Ransone said.

UMW President Troy Paino echoed those sentiments, telling the crowd that one of the things he likes best about his job is the sense of making an investment in the future.

“I feel that in this room here today,” Paino said. “This is just the beginning of what is possible. You are our future, and I am excited.”

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger and several other local, state and federal officials were on hand. Spanberger said the challenge is a chance for students to gain deeper knowledge of the possibilities at NSWCDD and within the Navy.

“This competition is certainly fun for the students, but hopefully it is giving them a glimpse into what opportunities exist in engineering, support for our military and research and development,” Spanberger said.

Michael Clark, NSWCDD’s K-12 STEM lead, added that it was inspiring for students to have engineers from NSWCDD and MITRE Corporation in classrooms to help them prepare for competition.

“Our hope is that by offering unique and exciting opportunities like the Innovation Challenge @ Dahlgren, those students will understand without a doubt that a career in STEM is fun, rewarding and achievable,” Clark said. “Hopefully this will encourage more and more students to follow a STEM career path and ultimately do great work for our country.”

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