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Giving Back: Richmond Science Teacher Expands Student Horizons

Avery Cooper didn’t know he wanted to be an engineer when he was a student at L.C. Bird High School in Chesterfield County in the late 1990s. But then he was recruited to the school’s FIRST Robotics team. “That changed everything,” says Cooper. “Robotics really opened my eyes.” Bitten by the engineering bug, Cooper went on to be Virginia State University’s first engineering graduate. And, after eight years designing highways from California to Maine, Cooper felt the call to share his engineering knowledge with young people.

Last fall, Cooper signed on as a brand new math and science teacher at Richmond’s Armstrong High School. He rounded up a dozen students, started up a FIRST Robotics team and entered this year’s FIRST Tech ChallengeFIRST participants design, build and operate remote controlled robots to compete in high energy contests. Along the way they learn science, teamwork, and real world problem solving skills. Cooper’s students didn’t hold back naming the team. “elecraCats the robotic dynasty” is Armstrong High School’s first-ever FIRST Robotics team.

Cooper wants to build on the team and hopes to introduce engineering and robotics into Armstrong’s curriculum. “I just hope to get the kids inspired to see the opportunities out there for them,” said Cooper. “I want the kids to think beyond the usual paths of sports and music. I told my team members this is like the Super Bowl of engineering, with scholarships.” Students on FIRST Robotics teams are eligible to be considered for more than $19 million in college scholarships.

“My dad’s a mechanic, he encouraged me to do this,” says team member Destiny Witcher. “I’d been thinking of forensics or psychiatry, but I could see myself doing engineering or robotics now.”

“At first, this all seemed pretty intimidating,” acknowledged Armstrong senior Da’Qwyn Venzen. “But Mr. Cooper has given us the encouragement that we need, to not doubt ourselves. Lots of us can do this, as long as we have motivation. It’s opened a lot of eyes about the endless amount of things we can do.”

“At first, it just started off as something to put on my college applications, but it’s turned into much more”, said fellow student Ene´ Hargrove. “I don’t think there’s any need for me to limit myself because I’m a woman. If the guys can do it, so can I.”

“I basically want to give the kids what was offered to me,” explains Cooper. “I had a teacher in the 10th grade who brought me to engineering and that made me want to become a design engineer. So ten years later, here I am!”

To learn more about FIRST Robotics, visit virginiafirst.org.

Story by Jim Babb; photos by Jim Babb and Bill Sigafoos

Audio by John Ogle, 88.9 WCVE FM