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NASA Education Resource Center Provides Training, Resources For Classrooms Across W.Va.

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The Mountaineer Area Robotics team (MARS) in their workspace at WVU's White Hall

NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation program has been a vital part of some of its most high-profile missions into outer space since 1993. Located in Fairmont, the program has also been helping teachers and students across West Virginia through their Education Resource Center (ERC). More recently, the center has also begun organizing competitive robotics events for student clubs. Todd Ensign is the ERC’s program manager.

“Ten years ago, when we took on Lego League, there were probably 500 kids total involved in competitive robotics in West Virginia,” said Ensign. “Today, it's like 5,000. So it's a big change. And my team went from a single event that we managed, to now we manage over 40 events a year.”

Ensign estimates that in a regular year, the ERC helps around 1,000 teachers and from 12,000 to 16,000 kids. Barbara Pill is one of the many West Virginia teachers the center has worked with. Pill manages the STEM club at East Fairmont Middle School. She says the competitions are the main reason new students join her club each year.

“With the competitions, they have outreach,” said Pill. “And it starts with telling fellow students about it. So each year, I have students who hadn't thought of being in STEM wanting to be in STEM because it sounds so cool, so much fun.”

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East Fairmont Middle School science teacher Barbara Pill standing in front of her STEM club's First LEGO League mats used for robotics competitions

By reaching out to the ERC, Pill was able to attend robotics workshops herself and bring back what she learned to her students. She was also able to use equipment the ERC loaned to her. Ensign calls this the “train-the-trainer” method.

“In this manner… we're able to have, I think, the broadest possible impact and bring resources to parts of the state that wouldn't otherwise…have access to them. Not every school can afford a $40,000 planetarium that they can bring in, or $20,000 classroom robots and iPads to program them with,” said Ensign.

One high school robotics team the ERC has helped is Morgantown’s Mountaineer Area Robotics, known as MARS for short. While not affiliated directly with the ERC, the center calls MARS its “house team.” It’s one of the robotics teams the ERC works closely with, and has helped mentor coaches like Paul Kritschgau.

“What they've done with me as a coach—I've never learned how to do a business plan for a coached team and things like that,” said Kritschgau. “So they're helping support from the ground up. If you need help on a business plan for a particular aspect that you don't have an expertise in, they can help you there.”

MARS is broken up into smaller groups that its members can join based on their interests. These include programming, electrical, mechanical, and manufacturing. Some students are even members of a group that handles the business and public outreach side of the team.

Ensign says he thinks the reason robotics has engaged so many students across West Virginia is because it aligns with the mentality of the state’s people.

“You know, if something is broken, we fix it. If a mining apparatus is damaged, we don't have time to wait for a new part to come in from far away. We get in and work on it. And I think that that same ethic has played true in our competitive robotics teams from kindergarten all the way through college teams,” said Ensign.

Currently, the Education Resource Center is preparing to hold a student drone competition on February 25. The center says it is set to be one of the largest competitions of its kind in the country.


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