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Fairmont State robotics competition to blend STEM with day-to-day applications for the non-scientific out there

Gimbals, gear ratios, torques, coding and the like, will again rule at Fairmont State on Saturday, when the school hosts the West Virginia FIRST LEGO League championships for students ages 9-14 just getting into the pursuit.

It’s a pursuit, as Todd Ensign said, that just might mean a good paycheck for them once they’re out of school and into the workforce.

“We’re excited for them and for us, too,” the chief coordinator of the championship said.

Ensign is a Fairmont State faculty member and education resource manager at NASA’s Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation facility, at nearby I-79 Technology Park.

When he isn’t doing that, he’s wrangling robots, and robotics teams, compromised of budding engineers and programmers from schools in every county in the Mountain State.

He hopes many of them will stay in north-central West Virginia — so they someday sport employee badges at the Johnson facility, which is currently testing out the computer software that will help guide vessels on upcoming missions to the moon and Mars.

“Sport” is a descriptor that definitely applies, he said.

That happened in 2021 when the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission officially recognized robotics as a legitimate school activity.

It was a move, he said, that opened what once was the province of, well, nerds, to the popular culture of the hallway masses, say, in the manner of science-fiction and speculative authors Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, two generations before.

Saturday’s championship, which runs from 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at Fairmont State’s Falcon Center and Engineering Technology Building, will feature 46 teams of around 400 participants.

And every single one, Ensign said, will be working scientific facts into the real world of day-to-day life, opposed to the fanciful musings of far-flung galaxies.  

That’s because there’s no set scenario or parameters for this competition, he said.

Students will blend STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — with artistic expression in their robotic creations crafted, in part, with LEGO, the popular snap-together blocks for youngsters who enjoy building things as part of their playtime, the coordinator said.

The parameters, he said, are imagination, governed by practical application.

“This one’s different,” Ensign said.

“It’s for the divergent thinkers out there. Wherever they want to take it, is where it’s going to go.”

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