Sports for the mind

Outside the L.C. Bird High School gym on Saturday, Feb. 5, there were all the trappings of a typical sporting event: The loud cheering of the fans, the announcer’s steady broadcasting and the enticing aroma coming from the concession stand nearby. However, inside was a different kind of event, as dozens of high school-aged engineers battled each other, not in physical sport, but in strategic, technological warfare.

That day, 28 teams from Virginia, including one from Bird,  contended in the first VEX Robotics competition hosted in Chesterfield County, but as the school’s head principal, Dr. Beth Teigen, said, the more important issue was Bird’s pre-engineering program – not necessarily the competition itself.

Established in 2000, the program, now called the Virginia Governor’s Academy for Engineering Studies, provides county students with a rigorous approach to learning the core concepts of engineering, preparing them for higher education and the work force. For Teigen, who once led the program and wrote much of its curriculum, extra-curricular events, such as VEX Robotics competitions, offer students a chance to use these skills while they are learning them.

“The kids get to apply knowledge they learn in the classrooms,” said Teigen. “And I think it’s really important that when they go from one competition to the next, it allows them to reflect on their performance and actually make improvements, which I think is where the real learning occurs.”

Also present that morning was Chesterfield County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Marcus J. Newsome, who spoke a few words of encouragement to the competitors.  Dr. Nancy Hoover, coordinator of the pre-engineering program at Bird, felt his words indicated an appreciation for the program’s approach to hands-on learning.

“He’s very supportive, as is all of Central Office, of this kind of thing because you can’t teach this in the classroom,” said Hoover. “You can talk about the theory, you can talk about the application, but this is where the kids are actually doing it. …We owe it to our motivated kids to give them avenues to explore.”

Hoover has seen firsthand how the program has benefitted students in the past, saying, “They were so much ahead of the game when they got to college.” The same applied, she said, when they hit the work force, as numerous graduates from the program have gone on to bright futures in engineering.

Darlene Pantaleo, a veteran volunteer in the field of robotics competitions, organized the event at Bird and felt this approach to learning benefitted students in different ways, one of which was helping them discover whether the field was right for them to pursue as a career choice.

 “Everyone that gets into it will learn something about themselves, whether its teamwork dynamics or problem-solving skills,” said Pantaleo. “These are life-type skills, these aren’t just for engineering programs; these are valuable life lessons.”

Bird’s team of six engineering students didn’t do particularly well that day, according to Hoover, but their success in a previous tournament qualified them for the VEX Robotics world championship, which will be held in Orlando, Fla., April 14-16. The team will be competing in another event at Liberty University on March 26.


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