Seven Heritage High School students have proven themselves by earning gold medals at the state level for skills ranging from bricklaying to robotics and carpentry to computation this year. This week they’re competing at the national level, but virtually.

In a typical year, SkillsUSA brings together more than 6,500 competitors from 53 states and territories for more than 100 competitions covering an area of more than 40 acres. COVID-19 shut down the national event in 2020, and this year students are showing what they can do online, some recorded on multiple video cameras as they compete.

Competing in SkillsUSA “was one of the best things I’ve done this past year,” said 2021 graduate Olivia Dunlap, who plans next to head to Pellissippi State Community College and pursue a degree in architecture or engineering.

While many students take career and technical education classes at local high schools starting their freshman years, Dunlap took fundamentals of construction the second semester of her senior year.

She wasn’t new to building, though. She started helping her father with do-it-yourself projects. “Slowly I kind of took over,” she said.

Dunlap has worked on home remodeling projects and built a chicken coop. Masonry was fairly new, though. “I had only probably laid maybe 15 cinder blocks in my entire previous experience,” Dunlap said, but when teacher Doug Blair told her that was the only competition he could put her in, she was eager to learn.

That meant practicing with bricks and mortar, and then tearing down the practice pieces with a big sledge hammer.

For the state competition, she built a 4-by-2-by-3-foot wall over about five hours, taking off her gloves to better handle the tools and materials.

“We actually had to take a break halfway through because she was bleeding on the project,” Blair said.

By Friday, June 11, Dunlap still didn’t know what she will have to build at the end of this week for the national competition.

Building a future

The competitions test not only skills but also critical thinking, problem-solving and endurance, said Nolan Phillips, a rising senior.

His task for the state gold medal in carpentry was building intersecting walls with metal studs. Based on the materials list for the national competition, he thinks the project that he will build Wednesday, June 16, will include a roof.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always had a hammer and a tape measure, something in my hands just dilly-dallying around,” he said.

Blair said not only are the building trades in high demand, but a student with SkillsUSA on her or his resume also will start at a higher level in the workplace.

At SkillsUSA in 2019, he said, companies were eager to hire competitors starting at $30 to $40 an hour.

Engineering a win

Three of the four robotics competitors from Heritage graduated in May and plan to study engineering. While they may have started creating with Lego as children, these days they 3D print parts and calculate voltage to build robots capable of complex tasks.

Logan Brookshire traces his interest in programming robots to Eagleton Middle School classes with teacher Gina Grubb. He plans to continue his studies at Pellissippi State and then transfer to the University of Tennessee.

His Mobile Robotics Technology teammate, Bryson Myers, is headed to Tennessee Technological University, also to study mechanical engineering. His interest goes back to science classes at Walland Elementary and evening events that featured STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

While the team usually would know its task early in the calendar year, this time it wasn’t until late February or March for the state competition in April. They had only an idea of what the course would be like until parts of it arrived in the mail, Myers said.

Their robot has to pull blue balls out of a goal and put red ones in, running both autonomously and with a remote-control driver for two minutes each.

Even after graduation, they have been back in the HHS engineering classroom continuing to finetune their robot, computer-aided design drawings and the resumes on which they will be judged.

Beyond learning about CAD, hydraulics and electronics, the competition has strengthened their perseverance and work ethic, Myers said.

“The robot is a lot of trial and error,” he said. “One time it will work, and the next time, even though nothing has changed, it doesn’t.”

An HHS team has won a national SkillsUSA medal every year it has competed in Robotics: Urban Search and Rescue since 2014: two each of gold, silver and bronze. “There’s an audible sigh every time we compete,” said Caden Branch, who first competed as a sophomore.

At state his score with teammate Avery Rayfield, a rising senior, was 200 points above the next highest competitor.

The team’s robot has to be able to navigate a course with ramps and open mailboxes to find and retrieve plastic cubes.

In the past, Heritage students have worked together over two years, which helps develop the rapport needed when one person watches the robot on the course and relays information to the other, operating it by remote control.

“We basically started out as strangers,” Rayfield said.

The team also had to build its 12x12-foot competition course in teacher Sam Warwick’s engineering classroom, cutting PVC pipe to make the perimeter. Heritage carpentry students built the ramp for them.

While the most visible part of the robotics competitions are the few minutes they spend navigating the course, they also are judged on their engineering notebooks and resumes.

Adding up to fun

Olivia Smith won’t be able to show the judges her work, just the final answer, as she competes in Related Technical Math.

“I like problem-solving,” said this year’s HHS valedictoria, who plans to play softball at Chattanooga State Community College as she continues her studies to become a civil engineer.

For SkillsUSA, the questions ask real-world problems, such as how much wood to order for a project, accounting for waste. “It’s not just like, solve for X,” she said.

“I like knowing there is a solution and I know the steps to get there,” she said.

Her love for math goes back to at least sixth grade, and by her junior year she was taking calculus. “I went into high school wanting to be a (math) teacher,” Smith said, but through other girls she discovered opportunities in STEM. “I found that I could be solving problems that mean something and change the world.”

Her competition isn’t just an online multiple-choice math test. She also has to submit a resume and a video telling about herself. Smith said it was good practice for speaking during the graduation ceremony.

“This is just for fun,” she said of the text she’ll take this week. “This is just me showing my skills.”

Education Reporter

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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