FAIRMONT — For years, Todd Ensign and other educators have built up a competitive robotics scene in West Virginia, and Monday that work paid off.
Fairmont State University’s Feaster Center was booming like a Falcon’s basketball game night on Monday morning. Twenty-four robotics teams from around the state faced off in the first West Virginia Robotics Championship sanctioned by the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission.
Celebrating the achievement with the students were representatives from NASA and both West Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Ensign, who serves as the program manager for NASA’s Education Resource Center, said Monday served as validation for all the work he’s done as well as validation for the students who commit their time to robotics as a competitive sport.
“I remember when [WVSSAC] President Bernie Dolan showed up to one of my events impromptu. We had been arguing with the SSAC that we should be considered a sport,” Ensign said. “He was not so sure at first… after an hour of watching the matches he came to me and said, ‘This is a sport and it does deserve our recognition.'”
The WVSSAC is the governing body that sanctions K-12 sports in West Virginia, and its stamp of approval was one of the missing factors to show the authenticity of sports that are rooted in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics in West Virginia.
Before this event, robotics competitions were held through the VEX Robotics national circuit, which is a widely accredited program, but lacked the prominence of the WVSSAC in the world of sports.
“We are seeking nothing less than a cultural shift in thinking. We want parents and students across the state to see that you can compete in an athletic sport, you can compete in band and we believe robotics has a place on that stage as well,” Ensign said. “We believe this is a step that will ease into things like ease of transportation and paid coaching positions, things that other sports have access to.”
In an interview during the event, Sen. Manchin said that this is an example in the shift Ensign is looking for. For years, West Virginia has lagged behind in notoriety for its leaps forward in the field of STEAM, but this will serve as a notice to the public and the country that West Virginia is ahead of the competition. The Mountain State is now one of only eight states in the country to have an officially sanctioned robotics competition.
“We have an awful lot of [STEAM] resources in West Virginia… we just need to push it more, because people don’t realize the opportunities they have,” Manchin said. “The future is space and that’s where we have to make sure that’s where we dominate… as Americans and West Virginians.”
One of the major sponsors of the state’s larger robotics competitions has been Fairmont State, and the university played a key role in Monday’s competition, not only as a facilitator, but through funding as well.
Mirta Martin, the university’s president, said that access to STEAM education is the future that Fairmont State will push and giving this level of authenticity to the sport aspect of the field will only increase its popularity and legitimacy.
“When kids go through school, they want to join sports because sports teaches them things that can’t be taught in the classroom, like teamwork, stewardship and communication,” Martin said. “Up to this point, athletic sports was all there had been, but now for young men and women who aren’t interested in athletic sports there’s another option in robotics.”
East Fairmont and North Marion High schools attended Monday. North Marion’s robotics team recently returned from the VEX Robotics World Championship in Dallas and was excited to return home to compete in the state’s first officially-sanctioned tournament.
Todd Knight and Kaitlyn Ault, NMHS’ Robotics coaches, said this level of legitimacy really changes the game for robotics as a sport in West Virginia and their students were excited to see how big the sport is getting in the state.
“This really gives the platform and the opportunity to grow robotics,” Ault said. “On the VEX circuit, it’s incredible but the WVSSAC, just with its name, gives our kids another pedestal to be recognized for their talents.”
“I think this really gives the state a competitive edge in the STEAM technology field and that the stereotypical views of our state don’t really hold true in a lot of ways,” Knight said.
“This has been in the works for a long time,” Ault said. “To see it finally becoming a reality is nice. It’s nice to see it finally happening.”