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Friday, May. 09, 2014

With an eye for safety and technical skill, Olathe Northwest robotics club finds success

Special to The Star

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Olathe Northwest High School junior Sam Viron would be the first to tell you that a stereotype comes to mind when people hear the term “robotics team.”

“A lot of people think that in robotics everyone is quiet and nobody talks, but it’s truly valuable to be able to communicate,” Viron said.

Viron’s strong communication skills proved valuable for her and her 40 teammates on Olathe Northwest’s FIRST Robotics Team 1710.

She walked away with one of the biggest awards, the Safety Star of the Day, during the World Championships competition last month in Saint Louis. The team qualified for the championships after winning several awards at a regional competition in Oklahoma City in March.

The team designed and built a robot earlier this school year. At the World Championship, it competed for points against other robots by passing a ball down a field.

During the championships, which drew 3,000 students from more than 400 teams from around the world, Viron showcased her ability to communicate well. She talked about safety to judges and other students every time they walked by the team’s work area, and she has made sure that most of her teammates are certified in CPR and first aid.

Viron believes her ability to communicate her dedication to team safety helped her gather enough student nominations to earn the Safety Star of the Day award.

“Out of 400 teams, only eight people get the award, so it’s a pretty big deal,” Viron said.

Viron’s award was just one of several that the FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — Robotics Team 1710 won during the competition. The team also took home the Underwriters Laboratory Industrial Safety Award for having the strongest safety program and the Engineering Inspiration Award, which goes to a team that helps inspire the next generation to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math.

Inspiring young people to consider a STEM career is ultimately what it’s all about for the team’s coach, Darren Worcester, who has coached the team for eight years. During his team’s intensive six-week build season, the group meets after school five days a week for three to four hours and for up to 12 hours on Saturdays.

Worcester is also a computer-aided design instructor for Olathe Northwest’s Aerospace and Engineering program, one of the Olathe school district’s 21st Century programs.

“It’s been said that there is going to be a shortage of engineers in the future,” Worcester said. “I just want to keep kids interested in engineering and help grow the field in the United States.”

At Olathe Northwest, the initiative seems to be working. About 89 percent of Worcester’s students go on to study a STEM field.

“We have several students going to very prestigious schools with good scholarships in engineering,” Worcester said. “Some of our kids are really getting some amazing jobs out there, so it is working on a small scale.”

One of the areas where Worcester would like to continue to see growth is in the recruitment of women to the engineering field. To help, FIRST Team 1710 sells merchandise with a “You Go Girl” logo and promotes engineering through posters and mailings to eighth grade girls in the Olathe district.

Viron said she was nervous as one of 15 girls on the 41-member robotics team when she first joined, and she said the team’s marketing campaign has made a difference.

“The You Go Girl program gave me that confidence to work in a room full of guys,” Viron said.

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