NASA Knights Earn Honors, Trip to World Championship
By: Amy Johnson

Though the New Horizons NASA Knights team didn’t walk away with a trophy for winning the FIRST Virginia Regional robotics tournament last month, the team earned the highest honor presented to any team at the event. The Langley-sponsored group won the prestigious Chairman's Award, which recognizes the team that best "inspires greater respect for science and technology, and encourages more young people to appreciate the real-life rewards and career opportunities in those fields." The Regional Chairman's Award honors the team that, in the judges' estimation, best represents a model for others to emulate and which embodies the goals and purpose of FIRST.

FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – was created in 1992 by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. FIRST encourages young people to be science and technology leaders, engaging them in mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills.

NASA Knights.

Members of the NASA Knights team received three major awards at the regional tournament. Julia Thompson, bottom right, is a finalist in the Dean’s List Award. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith.

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"We've really been trying to win the Chairman's Award for the past two years," said Joanne Talmage, who is the NASA Knights leader and also is Robotics, Electronics and Fiber Optics instructor at New Horizons Regional Education Center in Hampton. "This time we had the whole team going for the award, and it made all the difference in the world."

This is the first time the team, who got started with the help of NASA's Langley Research Center 13 years ago, has won the award.

Since February, more than 1,800 teams across the world have been competing in regional tournaments for a chance to go to the championship tournament in Atlanta on April 15-17.

At their regional tournament in Richmond, the NASA Knights were ranked 10th among 63 teams, advancing to the semifinals, where they lost after five matches that included two ties. Their Chairman’s Award has guaranteed them a spot at World Championship, in which they will compete against more than 350 teams, including other regional Chairman Award winners.

Jeff Seaton, a NASA Langley employee and long time supporter of FIRST, was master of ceremonies for the Virginia regional tournament. He was excited to announce the Chairman's Award for the NASA Knights.

"Their continued and sustainable community service, outreach projects, long term partnerships and sponsors have not held them back from seeing an even better future. This is FIRST ... on steroids," Seaton told the crowd at the tournament’s closing ceremonies.

The judges chose the NASA Knights for the Chairman's Award because the team's "reach spans land and sea" and because 16 teams in the FIRST family have been created by the NASA Knights' efforts, Seaton said.

"I am very proud of this team and all the students’ accomplishments. The Chairman’s Award is not only a reflection on this year’s team, but on the success of the overall program and the partnership that New Horizons has developed with NASA and with the larger community over the past decade," Seaton said after the tournament.

In addition to the Chairman’s Award, the team also received the Entrepreneurship Award for an impressive business plan, which included information about what the team did this year, what it plans for the future and how it will sustain itself in the years ahead.

To get in the running for the awards, the entire team increased its efforts in archiving pictures, videos and other documentation of projects, said Talmage. Students spent months rehearsing their five-minute presentation, which was in addition to five minutes of questions from the judges.

As Seaton announced the two awards, the NASA Knights were cheering and some even cried.

There was so much commotion, that the team almost didn't hear the announcement of yet another award.

NASA Knights member Julia Thompson, a 17-year-old homeschooled student from Gloucester, was one of only two students of more than 1,000 participating in the event to be nominated for the newly created Dean’s List award.

"Everything was happening so quickly that I almost missed the announcement," Thompson said.

The Dean's List Award recognizes student leaders who have excelled in increasing awareness of FIRST and its mission. Award finalists will travel to the World Championship, where a few will selected for the prestigious honor.

Her team nominated her for the award and her mentors wrote an essay on her behalf. Thompson, who will attend Cedarville University in Ohio on a Scholar Award for leadership, plans on majoring in mechanical engineering, a field to which she was introduced by her father, Jon Thompson, who works at NASA Langley.

Thompson has participated in FIRST since she was in seventh grade, beginning with the Lego League, then the First Tech Team Challenge Team and finally the First Robotics Team at New Horizons.

She gives a lot of credit to her parents.

"They never told me I that I couldn’t excel in the field of math and science because I was a girl," Thompson said. "They always encouraged me."

One of her NASA Knights mentors, Rick Mangum, husband of NASA Langley Chief Information Officer Cathy Mangum, wrote: "Julia's strong technical, leadership and team building skills are best demonstrated by her ability to recognize complex problems, work with the team to develop proposed solutions and help lead the team to a successful competition year."


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