The expertise of West Virginia University, the experience of community mentors and the minds of West Virginia high school students created a winning formula at the world’s largest event for STEM students.
The Mountaineer Area RoboticS, or MARS, team received the Chairman’s Award at the annual FIRST Robotics Competition Championship in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 29. A team from Australia won the Chairman’s Award at the tandem championship event in Houston, Texas the weekend before. The highest honor given at the championships, the award recognizes the team that the organization thinks “best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the purpose and goals of FIRST.”
“The MARS students and mentors are truly inspiring,” said President Gordon Gee. “They are tremendous examples of West Virginia University’s mission to actively engage the young people of our state in STEM education so that they can grow into bold, prosperous citizens.”
The MARS team has 43 students who are either home schooled or hail from Morgantown, University, Preston, Fairmont Senior and Robert C. Byrd high schools. The team is coached by Earl Scime, Oleg D. Jefimenko Professor of Physics and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Steve Raque, an engineer with Bombardier in Pittsburgh, and mentored by WVU faculty, WVU students and community members.
In addition, WVU provides funding, tools and work space in White Hall, the home of WVU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
“Without WVU, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” said Maggie Raque, a Morgantown High School senior. “Having a neutral workspace allows us to have such a variety of students who come from so many different places, and it allows anyone to be a part of the team.”
FIRST says the robotics competition “combines sports excitement with the rigors of science and technology.” Under strict rules, limited resources and set time limits, teams fundraise, design a brand, collaborate, participate in outreach events, and build and program robots to perform tasks in head-to-head competition. More than 83,000 students on 3,336 teams from 25 countries competed during the 2017 season.
“The students that have the drive and self-motivation to accomplish these very difficult tasks are exactly the kind of students we want at West Virginia University and in society,” said Scime. “Graduates of the MARS program have had a major impact on a number of different WVU programs, including – but not limited to – the highly successful WVU NASA Centennial Robotics team.”
Autumn Baker, a University High School senior, said it took years for the team to hone its strengths.
“You have to make the competition into what you’re best at as a team and just go for it,” said Baker. “For us, it really just comes back to our love for West Virginia and our desire to make it a better place.”
Before studying journalism at WVU this fall, Baker will travel the state to lead robotics camps as an intern for NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation Facility.
Scime, who has coached the team since helping to create it in 2008, said that the enthusiasm of team is motivating.
“I stay involved because these kids restore my passion for teaching,” said Scime. “They show up eager to learn, and are self-motivated and incredibly focused. Every time I work with them, they restore my hope that we can build a society that values creativity, professionalism and diversity.”
MARS will also be inducted into the FIRST Hall of Fame, joining an elite group of teams who are invited to compete in all future FIRST world championships.
The position is hard-earned and demonstrates the resolve and abilities of WVU and West Virginia’s high school students.
“There is a lot of teamwork and problem solving,” said Diane Raque, a team mentor. “Things go wrong. Being able to focus and solve a problem quickly while working together among the different sub-teams are skills applicable to any discipline. We’re not just building robots—we’re building people.”