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NAVWAR STEM Fosters Next Generation Of Scientists, Engineers
by U.S. Navy Lily Chen, Naval Information Warfare Command
November 20, 2022

Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR) co-hosted the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) LEGO League (FLL) Challenge Qualifying Tournament on November 5, 2022 at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, California.

November 5, 2022 - The annual Eastlake High School-sponsored FIRST LEGO League Challenge Qualifying Tournament saw 13 teams compete in this year's event, co-hosted by Naval Information Warfare Command (NAVWAR) and the Eastlake High TitanBots in San Diego, California. More than 40 scientists and engineers from NAVWAR and Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific volunteered, coached and mentored students for this year's tournament. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Navy photo by Aaron Lebsack, NAVWAR.)
November 5, 2022 - The annual Eastlake High School-sponsored FIRST LEGO League Challenge Qualifying Tournament saw 13 teams compete in this year's event, co-hosted by Naval Information Warfare Command (NAVWAR) and the Eastlake High TitanBots in San Diego, California. More than 40 scientists and engineers from NAVWAR and Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific volunteered, coached and mentored students for this year's tournament. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Navy photo by Aaron Lebsack, NAVWAR.)

 Founded by inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST engages students ages four to 18 in exciting, mentor-based, research and robotics programs that help them become science and technology leaders, as well as well-rounded contributors to society.

At FLL Challenge Qualifying Tournaments, which NAVWAR has co-hosted since 2009 through its STEM Robotics Outreach Program, students compete in hands-on challenges designed to grow their critical thinking, coding and problem-solving skills. NAVWAR’s cohost, the Eastlake High School FIRST robotics team called TitanBot, is a non-profit, student-run organization which facilitates STEM-related activities and mentorship opportunities for younger students.

The NAVWAR STEM Robotics Outreach Program, created by Robotics Outreach Coordinator and Tournament Director Wanda Curtis, enables the workforce to engage the community as a coach or mentor to a local robotics team. Now, both she and Brian Williams serve as co-coordinators and FIRST tournament directors, engaging and training NAVWAR and Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific employees year-round. Examples include lunchtime brown bag events building LEGO models for FLL competitions and informational seminars to help employees coach and mentor local robotics teams. Both Curtis and Williams want to make it as easy as possible for the NAVVWAR workforce to get involved with robotics outreach in the local community.

“We’ve seen the impact that our work has on students’ STEM involvement throughout the years, and we couldn’t do it without the help of our great volunteers,” said Williams. “We are currently the only FLL Challenge tournament hosted south of the I-8, supporting a part of San Diego that is traditionally less represented in STEM activities.”

This year, 42 NAVWAR and NIWC Pacific employees volunteered as judges, referees, and inspectors, including NAVWAR Executive Director John Pope and his wife, Dawn Pope. Before getting out on the competition floor, each of the teams’ robots underwent a “Navy inspection” from the Popes, as well as Logistics Specialty Chief (Surface Warfare/Aviation Warfare) Manny DeJesus and Michael “Spock” McMillan, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) department head, both from NIWC Pacific.

The “Navy inspection” evaluated the robots’ readiness and functions as well as allowed students to engage in additional conversations with real scientists and engineers from the Navy. In conversing with the team members, NAVWAR leaders better understood the tasks the students accomplished with their robot. The students also gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for real-world STEM careers.

“Both Dawn and I were coaches in FLL Challenge before, so inspecting these robots is a nice reminder of what we used to do with our own kids,” said John Pope. “It’s wonderful to see the participants’ creativity in building their robots and to hear them describe with such passion how their robots work.”

This year’s 2022 theme is “SUPERPOWERED,” tasking teams to reimagine the future of sustainable energy and power their ideas forward. FLL Challenge invites teams of up to 10 children, ages nine to 14, to design and operate their own small-scale autonomous LEGO robots to complete missions based on theme, which this year is collecting and distributing energy. Each team competed in three two-and-a-half-minute robot game matches to determine their highest score. Examples of missions included retrieving energy units from windmills or turbine wheels in water reservoirs, all of which are constructed of LEGO models.

“My favorite part about planning this tournament is seeing all the kids interacting and having fun with the big robots we’ve built and competing in the challenges,” said Jason Nguyen, TitanBot CEO and current high school senior.

In addition to the robot games, teams also presented their robot design, core values and a research project focused on real-world problem-solving to identify innovative solutions. As part of FIRST’s mission, participants are encouraged to take part in gracious professionalism with their competitors, creating a supportive and collaborative environment where there’s room for everyone to learn and win.

Marty Machniak, engagement/technology, transfer and transition lead at NIWC Pacific, mentored a team from St. Kieran Catholic School in El Cajon. He has been working with St. Kieran since 2005, when his oldest of four children was a student. Although his youngest has left the school five years ago, he has continued to stay on as a mentor for their FLL Challenge team.

“I’ve continued to be a mentor because I love encouraging STEM, not only to students at that crucial age, but also their parents and school administrators,” he said. “A few years ago, I ran into a former team member, now studying mechanical engineering at UC San Diego, who thanked me for inspiring his passion for engineering. That means more to me than just about anything, to see my positive influence on the next generation.”

NAVWAR Commander Rear Adm. Doug Small was invited to be part of the opening ceremony. “It’s my first time at an FLL tournament, and I’m blown away by the amount of work the kids have put into their robots, from coding to design to building,” he said in his speech. “As you can see at our technology displays, we want to show you what we build for the world’s greatest Navy – robots that float, swim, fly, or orbit.”

The NAVWAR technology displays, staffed by current NIWC Pacific employees and former TitanBots, featured examples of autonomous underwater vehicles and scale models of light spacecraft. Gabriella Loaiza and Sean Stanko answered questions from any curious students or onlookers about what their robots can do. Both of them got involved with the Navy through the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program (NREIP), which provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to participate in research at a Navy laboratory.

“My involvement in TitanBots and FIRST furthered my love for robotics and engineering,” said Loaiza, a mechanical engineer at NIWC Pacific. “As part of NREIP, I worked in the same Unmanned Vehicle Maritime lab that I now work full-time in. I love that I get to use my creativity and problem-solving skills to continue building robots and even figure out new challenges, like making them run underwater.”

This year, there are 45 NAVWAR-mentored teams in San Diego involved with FIRST across the different age-range competitions. By mentoring the next generation of scientists and engineers, NAVWAR helps inspire a sense of innovation to work together and solve problems as a team. Competitions like this allow students to build their confidence, knowledge and technical skills that they will then carry with them throughout their education and career.

“Although we had less competitors than usual with the region recovering from the pandemic, this tournament was still a great opportunity for all of us here at NAVWAR and NIWC Pacific to get involved with STEM outreach,” said Curtis. “As an added measure, the TitanBots learned a lot about planning, schedules, communication, logistics and safety, as well as helping the next generation of scientists.”

Based on the teams’ scores on the game field and in the judged events, teams will then advance to the Regional Tournament. Teams were also awarded for their presentation performance and how well they demonstrated core values, strategy and robot design ... See winners and scores from the competition.

Teams that have advanced to Regionals will compete for a spot in the FLL California Southern Championship in Riverside, Calif. December 17, 2022.

About NAVWAR

NAVWAR identifies, develops, delivers, and sustains information warfighting capabilities and services that enable naval, joint, coalition, and other national missions operating in warfighting domains from seabed to space and through cyberspace. NAVWAR consists of more than 11,000 civilian, active duty, and reserve professionals located around the world.

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