‘Kids need to learn how to think through a problem’: Peggy Vavalla on robotics education - Technical.ly Delaware

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May 18, 2015 12:25 pm

‘Kids need to learn how to think through a problem’: Peggy Vavalla on robotics education

The First State Robotics board president recalls some of her fondest memories from 17 years with the organization.
A First State Robotics team.

A First State Robotics team.

(Photo by First State Robotics)

What’s the biggest misconception people might have about youth robotics? According to DuPont’s education liaison, Peggy Vavalla, it’s the notion that robotics are too hard for the average kid.

“Kids need to learn how to think through a problem,” Vavalla said. “They need to learn from their mistakes.”

Those are exactly the kinds of lessons Vavalla strives to teach in her role as board president at First State Robotics, a nonprofit that provides STEM mentorship to Delaware’s myriad youth robotics teams. Vavalla’s been with DuPont for nearly 25 years. She said she got involved with FSR in 1998, when DuPont became the organization’s founding sponsor.

In 17 years, Vavalla said the humanity in robotics is what continues to surprise her most.

“I’ve seen it change kids’ lives,” she said. “I think it gives kids a chance to explore, to meet other kids that are like-minded. It gives them a great foundation for critical thinking.”

And in 17 years, Vavalla has witnessed her fair share of critical thinking — and humanity. She remembers judging a middle school boys’ robotics team a few years back. Every team that year was given a “nanotechnology” theme to build upon. The boys’ school didn’t have the proper funds to provide the team with ample space to work. So, the team worked out of a janitor’s closet.

Vavalla approached the team when the judging finished up. Then, she noticed something peculiar.

“There was this gentleman there. He looked really puffy, and there was something funny with his hair,” she said. “This boy [from the team] spoke up and said, ‘This is my father. He has brain cancer and we believe nanotechnology is how we’ll be able to cure it someday. That’s really why we started this.'”

And that’s why they chose to continue building a robot in a cramped janitor’s closet.

Vavalla said many of the kids involved with FSR end up receiving scholarship money from the international FIRST Robotics Competition. Vavalla said a number of the high school students earn full rides to prestigious schools.

When those scholars graduate, Vavalla said many end up returning to FSR through employment with the organization’s founding sponsor DuPont.

After all, Vavalla said it best: “It’s all about the robotics.”

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Companies: FIRST Robotics, DuPont
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