Morgantown-area high school students win highest honor at robotics competition—for community outreach.

Local high school students of the Mountaineer Area RoboticS, or MARS, team stood together at the international FIRST Robotics Competition Championship in St. Louis, Missouri, in April 2017. Holding hands and shaking, the team was waiting to hear who won the Chairman’s Award. MARS had been declared one of three finalists that morning, the last day of competition. The announcer drew out the suspense by vaguely listing the winning team’s accomplishments, only hinting at which team had won. MARS was slowly overcome by a sense of euphoria. “We realized it could be us, it could actually be us,” MARS member Maggie Raque says, thinking back.

When the announcer finally pronounced MARS the winner, every member of the team was overwhelmed with emotion. Their competitors watched as MARS sprinted to the stage to accept the award. “We were screaming, there were tears, there were hugs, and it was truly an amazing moment that I will never forget,” says Shannon Werntz, vice president of MARS’ non-technical affairs, overseeing the team’s community outreach.

The students work together to build large-scale robots named Marvin that are “speedy and strong” according to Earl Scime, chairman of physics and astronomy at WVU and head coach of MARS. The team has six weeks to create the robot, which then competes in a game against other teams in regional and nationwide competitions. But the students also work hard to start, mentor, and sustain STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—programs in K-12 schools across West Virginia, and that is the effort that this award recognized.

“The Chairman’s Award is given to a FIRST robotics competition team that builds STEM programs and has a good partnership with its community,” Scime says. FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is the international parent organization of MARS. Both organizations serve to inspire young people to engage in science and technology programs.

MARS is made up of more than 40 students in 9th through 12th grades from Monongahela, Harrison, Marion, and Preston counties. “MARS honestly is a family,” Werntz says. “We come from eight different schools across the state of West Virginia, so you’d think there would be a little natural rivalry between some groups of students, but we really all just get along.”

The competition is an opportunity for team members to be creative, Scime says, “while still using the skills they’re learning in school to do something very complicated under time pressure with limited resources in a very competitive environment.”

The students were awarded for their countless efforts throughout West Virginia. “We do STEM nights, parades, and festivals to encourage science and technology activities in the community. We also build strong local partnerships with corporations and universities to create sustainable programs,” says Werntz.

Coaches and mentors also help inspire the team. “Everyone is a volunteer—every coach, every mentor—who put in a lot of time and effort to make the program successful,” Scime says. They meet with the students every Wednesday at White Hall on the WVU campus.

With more than 2,000 followers on Twitter and 1,000 on Facebook, MARS has captured the attention of people across the state. The team has also won many awards for its robotics, including programming and design. “MARS is a very technically sophisticated team, as well as having a big impact in the community,” Scime says. “There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of opportunities for kids throughout West Virginia to do STEM-based activities, primarily robotics. MARS has played a key role in that expansion.”

Organizers use a five-step program called “the MARS plan” to create sustainable teams that incorporate activity in their communities. The last step of the program is to encourage team members to go out into the world and become future leaders and innovators in science and technology. MARS is proud that more than 98 percent of its graduates continue on to college. “We always say that we’re not building robots with people—we’re building people with robots,” Werntz says.

Of 3,000 FIRST Robotics teams worldwide, MARS competed against about 40 teams in St. Louis. For winning the Chairman’s Award, MARS joins FIRST’s Hall of Fame and will be invited to all global robotics competitions in the future. “There are teams that have inspired us throughout our history by the impact that they have had in their communities, so it’s humbling to realize that we are now that team others are going to be looking up to,” Werntz says.

written by Kristen Uppercue