Sherando wins Widget Cup

Josh Phelps, left, chats with Les Veach, right, during the Widget Cup competition. Phelps, who originated the contest, and Veach were judges. Rich Cooley/Daily
Sherando High School student Evan Simmons, 17, measures for coat hangers for this station for personal belongings during the Widget Cup competition Friday at Sherando High School Friday. Rich Cooley/Daily
Sherando High School student Cooper Veall, 18, left, hammers a nail into a side panel while Evan Simmons, 17, right, looks on during the competition. Rich Cooley/Daily
Justin McDonald, 18, uses a file to clean out a hole in this plywood panel as he worked against the clock. Rich Cooley/Daily
Sherando High School student Evan Simmons, 17, sands the edges while he and Justin McDonald, 18, put on the finishing touches to their completed project. Rich Cooley/Daily

Four high schools from Frederick County and Winchester met again to compete in a real-world challenge to construct a useful piece of furniture they learned about only four hours before.

They were competing Friday for a 40-pound steel trophy rimmed with roller bearings, known as the Widget Cup, to proudly display in their school for a year, right along with the school’s athletic and academic awards.

Each school’s eight-member team was composed of students taking Career and Technical Education (CTE) and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) coursework – once known as “shop.”

Rebounding from a loss last year, Sherando won, as it did the first year of the competition, sending the remaining teams from John Handley, Millbrook and James Wood High Schools into a “Wait ’til next year syndrome.”

The three-year-old Widget Cup is the brainchild of Josh Phelps, 43, president of Winchester Metals, a steel distribution, processing and metal fabrication business.

Phelps might have been channeling his own career when he created the Widget Cup because after graduating from Virginia Tech and working three years as a loan officer he realized, “banking wasn’t what I wanted to do” and went to work at Winchester Metals.

Seeing a dearth of skilled workers ready to replace an aging workforce in the area and nationwide, Phelps sought to showcase evolving technical work skills in a unique way, both challenging and fun. The Widget Cup was born.

The competition challenges teams to use ingenuity, teamwork and problem solving skills.

The fun wrinkle is once they first learn of the project, they have an hour to draft, design and create a plan to build it, four hours in Sherando High School’s shop to construct it, and after a 30-minute break, deliver a 10-minute marketing presentation.

The presentation was to include aesthetically pleasing visuals showing the process, a clear sales pitch and how it helps people.

Five judges used a three tier rating for 15 separate criteria – five on presentation and 10 on the design/build – to pick a winner.

This year Bright Future, a Frederick County nonprofit that helps schools connect students with needs with existing community resources, requested a wooden storage unit to hold personal belongings for three to four people.

It needed to be mobile and stable, capable of holding a heavy coat, purse, hat, laptop/tablet, cellphone, umbrella, backpack, lunchbox and gym bag. Each team had the same construction items and tools.

“We have a lot of needs,” said Nancy Mango, program coordinator for Bright Future, which operates out of an old school bus depot with a dirty concrete floor. “We need a place for volunteers and students to put their stuff when they visit.”

The Cup challenge is fun to watch.

“They all see (what they are asked to build) in a different way,” observed Rob Wright, 66, a technical education teacher at Sherando since 1999.

“It’s a great idea,” he said as he provided guidance and safety overview during student usage of the shop’s table saw. “You get to see their creativity and how they work together. There is a lot of talent in these schools.”

Twenty business and public entities partnered to produce the Widget Cup competition.

“It’s a boon to those companies,” said Sally Michaels, existing business coordinator of the Frederick County Economic Development Authority. They get to see how these kids lead, how they work together and use life skills, work skills.”

Cooper Beall, 18, now a Sherando senior who has participated in all three Widget Cup competitions, got summer jobs with his Widget Cup resume.

Beall plans to attend Virginia Tech and study mechanical engineering, calling the Widget Cup, “a great thing and I hope other (Virginia) counties adopt it. I like what it means getting us technically involved and using our skills, putting us to the test.”

Sometimes, even parents of those taking the STEM coursess don’t see the student’s abilities, said Michaels. “It’s just a amazing chance for them to showcase their skills and for parents to meet their teachers.”

During the frenzied shop work, a camera feed showed the activity on a large screen in the school’s auditorium.

Inside the shop, electric saws chewed through wood, cordless drills punched holes, stick welders showered sparks, hammers pounded nails, while tape measures were used over and over.

Three audio-visual members – knowledgeable of shop safety – circled and took video and photographs of their team’s five build members as they morphed design into reality.

Sherando’s team built what they called “The Cube” with four partitions – the only one separating personal belongings for four. It was chest-high so the top could serve double-duty as a stand up desk with a power strip to charge or operate electronic devices.

About 100 people watched the final presentations, including Del. Chris Collins, R-Winchester, who said, “I hope to see outside the box thinking. They are showing a lot of skills we need in this community.”

Manassas and Orange County have shown interest in the Widget Cup Phelps said, noting it is the only such contest he knows about in the U.S.

“There is only one winner, no second place,” said Phelps. “It’s a taste of real world science. In life you win or you don’t. It knocks down the stigma of what used to be the shop class.”

He noted more than half-a-dozen women served on teams this year, like Robin Blowers, a Handley senior, taking tech classes as “part of my career path,” she said, to pursue a career as an aerospace engineer.

“There are existing jobs here where people are going to retire and we need to maintain that work force, Phelps said. These are sustaining, well paying jobs that can last for an entire career.”

Each of the four storage units – one referred to as “mobile docking stations for personal belongings” – will go back to their school for finishing touches before being delivered to Bright Futures.

Contact Tom Crosby at news@nvdaily.com

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