“It’s More Than Building Robots”
At Battlefield High School in Haymarket, Virginia, students on the ILITE FIRST® robotics team don’t count their successes solely by the number of district, regional, and world championships they’ve won—although they’ve racked up plenty of those in the club’s 13-year history. Rather, they count their true success in “minds touched” through their community programs, charities served, numbers of peers or younger students they’ve mentored or trained in team building and leadership, and beneficiaries of their other outreach activities.
Total minds touched by ILITE so far: 64,000 (and counting).
The Battlefield ILITE (Inspiring Leaders in Technology and Engineering) FIRST team was formed in 2005, cofounded by Professor Gail Drake and other mentors who recognized the critical need for K-12 STEM curricula. Dedicated to helping to grow the next generation of computer scientists and engineers, Drake and other like-minded STEM champions in the Prince William County Schools (PWCS) system have worked to implement and extend the use of educational tools such as the FIRST Robotics Competition and SeaPerch engineering program at Battlefield H.S. and throughout the PWCS K-12 curriculum. Thanks to the dedication and commitment of Drake and other PWCS teachers and administrators, elements of both programs are now used by every grade and high school in the county.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) includes a progression of STEM programs for K-12 students, and was created in 1989 by Dean Kamen, a leading American scientist and inventor whose products include the Segway human transporter and the iBOT battery-powered wheelchair. FIRST teams are judged not only by the performance of their robots during competitions, but also by how well they work together, the effectiveness of their fundraising and community outreach programs, and for how well they embody personal attributes such as Gracious Professionalism.
“Dean Kamen questioned why kids look up to athletes and actors as their heroes, but not scientists, engineers, educators, and other professionals,” Drake says. “FIRST is a great way to show kids that there are other kinds of stars worth emulating—and it’s more than building robots. A robot is just a tool we use to teach more fundamental and universal skills—critical thinking, time management, working with others on diverse teams to solve problems, and serving the community. Our primary goal is to inspire lifelong citizens who can succeed, and help others succeed as well.”
In addition to leading the ILITE coaching team at Battlefield H.S., Drake teaches web and database programming, software engineering and design, cybersecurity, and sustainability and renewable technology classes. She is also a professor in computer sciences and cybersecurity with the Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) system, and works with other PWCS leaders and county and state education officials to create the programs needed to extend STEM programs throughout Virginia’s K-12 school systems.
“We now have FIRST LEGO® League programs at all Prince William County elementary schools, and our next initiative is to extend STEM curricula to all grade levels in the county,” she says. “We’re also working with statewide education departments to implement national cybersecurity and computer science standards throughout all of Virginia’s elementary and high schools.”
ILITE: High performers
Under the guidance and mentorship of Drake and her team of coaches, the ILITE FIRST robotics team has established one of the longest consecutive winning streaks in the FIRST program, winning five Engineering Inspiration titles and then seven regional Chairman’s Awards. Competitively, the team ranks in the top five percent nationally, and has qualified for the FIRST Championship every year since fielding their first robot in 2007.
This April, the ILITE FIRST robotics team finished in the top 20 at the FIRST Championship in St. Louis —out of more than 6,000 teams—a high point in the team’s history. On their way to St. Louis this season, the ILITE FIRST robotics team also won or were finalists at several district and regional championships.
ILITE also fields several Cybersecurity teams that compete under the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot program and have won first place in the Virginia state tournament and third in a national regional tournament. Drake hopes the ILITE Cyber team qualifies for the CyberPatriot National Finals Competition next year, and proudly notes that the ILITE CyberPatriot program is just one of three teams selected by the CyberPatriot Program Office to pilot an advanced AFA CyberCamps program for other CyberPatriot teams.
“It’s impossible to measure the true impact that Professor Drake and her team of mentors have had on Battlefield students, the Haymarket community, and students of all grades across Prince William County,” says Kevin Kelly, CEO of LGS Innovations. Kelly and his wife are personal sponsors of ILITE; their son Michael is a graduating senior at Battlefield, president of the U.S. Air Force Association’s Cyber PatriotCyber team and the student leader for the Robotics Programming squad—where he authored over 5,000 lines of code for ILITE’s 2017 robot. “Professor Drake has been the ‘Champion in Chief’ in driving ILITE’s amazing record of success.”
Paying it forward
“From the outset, our goal has been to inspire our school, our community and the world,” Drake says. “Over the course of our 13-year history, ILITE has sponsored more than a hundred community programs and events to educate the community about ILITE, get local kids interested in STEM, and raise funds to support team activities.”
As one example, ILITE members host an annual STEAM Expo (adding ‘Arts’ components to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at their school. This spring’s Expo drew over 2,000 attendees—about the same-sized population as the town of Haymarket. ILITE was also chosen by Generation On to launch a Kindness Week Campaign this year, including sending daily kindness messages to their fellow students and the gathering, wrapping, and delivering of more than 250 presents for underprivileged kids in the area.
The team has hosted a variety of FIRST competitions at Battlefield H.S., including large district and regional events, and has also worked with students in Haiti, Bolivia, Malaysia, Liberia, Ethiopia, and other countries to mentor replication of FIRST and other STEM educational programs.
ILITE members also pay it forward with other up-and-coming FIRST teams. At this year’s FIRST Championship event, for example, ILITE members shared their knowledge about team building and leadership structures with over 500 other FIRST team members.
Promoting women in engineering
As the only female in her second master’s degree program (now 30 years ago), and then throughout her corporate and educational careers, Drake has seen firsthand the shortage of women in STEM fields—and is keenly aware that this deficit continues in today’s K-12 grades. While ILITE teams usually total 70-80 student members, Drake has rarely seen more than a dozen girls join in a given year.
“It’s hard to get girls interested in STEM—but I’ve found that female role models are a huge help,” Drake says. “It’s essential for young girls to see women in science, engineering, and other professional roles—because girls are different. By and large, girls don’t care about video and computer games. They want to apply their time and skills toward outcomes that matter—solutions that are renewable and sustainable, and that help other people.
“Girls love designing and building things like solar panels, windmills, and other things with positive socio-economic and environmental impact,” Drake continues. “We’re working on ways to adjust our STEM curriculum with this in mind.”
Inspiration – at any age
Fueling Drake’s passion to extend STEM deeper into the Virginia K-12 education system is the knowledge that, no matter how old a student is, they can learn about computer science—and be inspired to learn more.
“You can inspire anyone, at any age, at any educational level,” she says. “It is immensely rewarding to watch kids graduate with these skills—and with the confidence of knowing they can work with both their hands and their minds, and then inspire others to do the same. As an ILITE member says in one of our YouTube videos, ‘Every young child dreams of making a mark in the world—we’re ecstatic and amazed to have the opportunity to have an impact on the lives of so many.’ I couldn’t say it any better than that.”
Postscript, June 14, 2017: Nearly 1,000 Battlefield High School students recently participated in Virginia’s “NSA Day of Cyber,” an online, self-guided career exploration and mentorship platform that enables students to test-drive cyber careers and live a day in the life of leading NSA cyber professionals. With 37 percent of the school’s students taking part in this event, Battlefield H.S. was among the top five Virginia K-12 schools recently saluted by Governor Terry McAuliffe.
FIRST® and FIRST Robotics Competition are trademarks of FIRST. FIRST LEGO® is a jointly held trademark of FIRST and the LEGO Group. SeaPerch is a trademark of the Society of Naval Architects & Marine Engineers.
 Gracious Professionalism™ is part of the ethos of FIRST. It’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.