GACO Stem and Robotics

Published: February 19, 2021

by Dolores Youse, SHS Class of 1970

Garrett County Public Schools first implemented teaching STEM through robotics in 1990. Thirty years later, STEM education has not only expanded, it has exploded onto the Garrett County educational scene.

Tremendous support from Garrett County has led the way for the formation of FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 1629, the Garrett Coalition or “GaCo,” Project Lead the Way Engineering Pathways, and to development of outstanding support for Computer
Science in our Middle and High Schools.

All of this has led to Southern High School’s Computer Science Female Diversity Award. With a 79% success rate, AP, COMP, and SCI county test scores far exceed state averages. Robotics teams now compete nationwide, and outreach into the Appalachian communities has broadened the reach of a most robust set of programs.

In 1990, Garrett County Schools implemented LEGO based Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math activities into classrooms.

Four years later, Garrett County Schools started Summer “Tech Camps” where students create and control LEGO based machines. In
2002 Garrett County Schools began to compete in FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competitions with one countywide team. In 2005, Southern and Northern Garrett High Schools formed FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 1629. In 2006, Garrett County Commissioners provided a home for the “Garrett Engineering and Robotics Society” (GEARS), a non profit 501c organization which provides meeting space, expertise, and other support to some of Garrett County’s FIRST teams.

While STEM education was first implemented in the county high schools, over the following years STEM education was gradually added to the earlier school year classrooms. Today, FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology) learning programs start at age six and continue through middle and high school levels up to the age of eighteen. FIRST, founded over thirty years ago by inventor Dean Kamen, is devoted to helping young people discover and develop a passion for science, technology, engineering, and math. It is described as a “Sport for the Mind where young, innovative, and creative minds explore
science and technology, solving realworld problems and competing in exciting hands-on robotics challenges.” Programs
include FIRST LEGO LEAGUE JR. for ages 6-9 (grades K-3), FIRST LEGO LEAGUE for ages 9-16 (grades 4-8), FIRST TECH CHALLENGE for ages 12-18 (grades 7-12), and FIRST ROBOTICS COMPETITION for ages 14-18 (grades 9-12).

The First Robotics Competition (FRC) Team 1629, in league with Garrett County Public Schools, supported twenty-seven teams in Garrett County last school year. In addition to strong community support, Garrett County Commissioners are also very supportive
of STEM Education. Since 2005 they have provided and maintained a facility in Accident, Maryland that is used by GEARS, Inc., a nonprofit that supports Youth STEM programs in Garrett County.

Since then, GaCo has incorporated as its own nonprofit, thanks to the efforts of Southern alumni Josh Hinebaugh, Larry
Friend, and Brian Boal. Outstanding corporate support from Pillar Innovations/ Beitzel Corporation, Total Biz Fulfillment,
Garrett Container Systems and Phenix Technologies has also proved invaluable in the support of the STEM endeavors.

According to Chuck Trautwein, founder of GaCo (Garrett Coalition), the success of STEM Education in Garrett County can best be described as a “perfect Storm Situation” where our schools, communityorganizations, county government, and businesses have all come together to provide support.

GaCo founder Chuck Trautwein is now leading the mission to expand the impact of STEM education within and beyond the boundaries of Garrett County. He describes the three components of the GaCo Model as
• Mentoring younger FIRST teams
• Establishing meaningful community partnerships/engagement
• Making a systematic impact

GaCo’s quite ambitious mission is this: for all students across the Appalachian region to emerge from elementary school
STEM-Ready. That is, to give every student in Appalachia the opportunity to develop the necessary skills to ensure their success in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). GaCo has also developed a program implemented in all Garrett County elementary schools to ensure all students are STEM-Ready. The team’s model, as well as its vision, distinguish GaCo among the other 4,000 FRC teams from around the world.

GaCo’s work includes activities such as:
• embedding FIRST teams into the regular school day as much as possible
• mentoring younger FIRST teams
• supporting and building a repertoire of STEM activities that GaCo has to offer organizations sponsoring community events
• hosting and participating in retreats to share STEM outreach ideas with Maryland FRC teams
• presenting at K-12 Education and FIRST Conferences to establish contracts and leads to schools and school systems who could benefit from a FIRST program built on the GaCo model
• fundraising – GaCo is becoming famous for selling its freshly squeezed old-fashioned lemonade at community events around Garrett County
• teaching highly engaging STEM lessons to every third, fourth, and fifth grade student in Garrett County Public Schools, providing systemic or ‘”system wide” impact
• seeking opportunities to conduct STEM lessons outside of Garrett County…demonstrating to other Boards of Education and Superintendents how a FIRST team can make a difference across an entire school district in order to replicate its program
in the Appalachian Region. GaCo teams have logged over 10,781 miles traveling to counties in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia,
West Virginia, D.C., and rural communities in the Appalachian region similar to Garrett County

New this school year is the addition of a half-day intern to the GaCo program.

Southern High School senior, Olivia Warne, GaCo’s first intern, often travels to other schools and regions where she works
with younger students and helps to present the mission of GaCo. Olivia is quick to credit GCPS Tech Camps that started in
1994 with her introduction to STEM. It was there that Olivia remembers tagging along with her father, teacher Mike Warne,
as he helped Chuck Trautwein with the camp program. She describes the GaCo experience as being “part of a family” and has been actively involved with these STEM activities since third grade. GaCo hopes to add more interns next year.

These STEM-ready programs promote teamwork, problem solving, and a lifelong passion for FIRST. Many alumni, as many as 85%, will enter a STEM-related field, and 100% will enter college. Already, 15% of these alumni have become FIRST volunteers. Erik Wood, a 2006 graduate of Northern Garrett High School, received his degree in Mechanical Engineering, is now working for NAVAIR at Patuxent Naval Base, and is the lead mentor for a local FIRST Robotics Competition team in Maryland that supports programs in West Virginia. Wood’s team competes neck-in-neck with GaCo for some of FIRST’s most prestigious awards.

FRC 1629, GaCo, is very appreciative of all the support it receives, noting how essential it is in the team’s pursuit to its
VISION of “STEM Ready Kids” or, in other words, ensuring that all students in Garrett County and across Appalachia emerge from elementary school with those skills essential to their success in STEM.

Thanks to a $30,000 MATCHING ARC grant, GaCo is traveling and reaching out across the Appalachian region to help replicate its program in rural communities similar to Garrett County.

GaCo is more than just about robotics. Much more.

GaCo students learn that, in the “big picture” they are fortunate to have been enriched with not only the experiences and
opportunities provided to them in Garrett County, but to also have the chance to give the same opportunities to many others.

GaCo is always looking for opportunities to make a difference in Garrett County and across Appalachia. More information
on the FIRST program in Garrett County can be found at or contact Chuck at or reach out to him at 301-616-3231.
For more general information about FIRST programs, go to

Special thanks and recognition are given to Chuck Trautwein and Olivia Warne for their incredible enthusiasm and the valuable information used in this article.

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