Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Candidates Could Learn from Local Robotics Team

By Sia Nowrojee

Our presidential candidates could learn a thing or two from local high school robotics Team 1418. The team is also known as Vae Victis (“Woe to the Vanquished” in Latin). Unlike our presidential candidates, this team is not interested in slaying enemies, but rather, in mastering the art of science and technology.

Founded by students at George Mason High School, Team 1418 recently marked its 12th year with the only double win at the district level, bringing home the trophies for both the Northern Virginia and Greater D.C. districts in hotly contested competitions.

The tournaments are part of FIRST Robotics, founded by innovator Dean Kamen. With strict regulations, limited resources and limits, teams are challenged to hone technical and teamwork skills and build and program industrial-size robots to play a competitive field game.

So what can front-runners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and the rest of the gang learn from a high school robotics team?

First, build a strong record, based on hard work (not rhetoric). Team 1418 has consistently placed in the top three teams regionally. They started their career with the Rookie All Star Award and have won awards for Gracious Professionalism®, Industrial Design and the Innovation in Control Award. Team mentor John Ballou won the Woodie Flowers Finalist Award, recognizing his dedication to STEM education. There are no tricks behind these achievements. Just hard work, good ideas, calculated risks and teamwork. It pays off.

Next, offer an inspirational vision. “Our team and school have achieved an excellent hands-on education…We build prototypes, explore a concept, tear the design apart, rebuild in new configurations, and test a wealth of ideas in an extremely enjoyable arena filled with like-minded enthusiasts,” says Ballou. Imagine a national agenda based on these ideas instead of one based on building walls, marginalizing people and dismissing other people’s ideas?

No insults. A key (and copyrighted) principal of FIRST is Gracious Professionalism®; a mandate the candidates should adopt. Throughout competitions, FIRST teams are polite, share equipment and ideas, shake hands before competitions and give standing ovations to those they lose to. The kids learn their victories are real, built not on putting others down, but by ensuring an even playing field.

Promote opportunities for all. Team 1418 can be spotted around the D.C. region, encouraging people from all walks of life to explore STEM. You’ll see the robot at community runs, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, a DC United Soccer match and even the annual Center for Energy Workforce Development summit. Last year, a team member organized a robot demonstration for students not already part of a STEM initiative, including those in the English as a Second Language program.

Invest in the next generation, not just today’s voting base. Team 1418 teaches STEM skills at middle and elementary schools, and last year, awarded children Robot Driver’s Licenses at Virginia Tech’s Maker’s Festival. They support younger teams at regional FIRST Lego League (FLL) competitions. And it all pays off. A team alumnus serves as the FLL Tournament Director, and in the past two years, 90 percent of team alumni are pursuing careers in STEM.

Don’t just talk, make a difference. Team 1418 has enhanced their school with new STEM opportunities. With a grant from the Falls Church Education Foundation and the leadership of Ballou, the team established and manages their school’s Maker Space and Studio, open to the school community and equipped with cutting-edge technologies. Based on the success of Team 1418, the City of Falls Church School Board approved the first Robotics elective high school class.

You can’t do it alone. Team 1418’s success lies in its hard work and tenacity. It also benefits from the dedication of mentors and parents, the support of their school district, the generosity of donors and the enthusiasm of the Falls Church community.

Engage government on both sides of the aisle. Team 1418 presents their robot annually to our School Board and City Council. The 2014 Team Captain testified to the Congressional Subcommittee on Research and Technology. In 2015, Vae Victis members demonstrated the robot to senators and members of Congress during the second Annual FIRST National Advocacy Conference.

In the current context of ugly presidential politics, Team 1418 offers a lesson in how to consistently win without compromising on quality and principles. Last week, Congressman Don Beyer sent a message of congratulations to Team 1418, acknowledging, “For many, March Madness is all about basketball. But for thousands of students across the US, March is the battleground for qualifying for the (robotics) world championship in St. Louis in April. Vae Victis has sparked enthusiasm for STEM education. They are the real March MVPs, making a difference in their community.”


Sia Nowrojee is a Team 1418 Robotics Competition mentor.