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From gardening to robotics, high school clubs thrive during the pandemic

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Lina Gallo and Margaret Cole say the first seeds of the new club were planted last spring. 

The two students at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington grew up helping their moms in the garden, so when the coronavirus hit the area in March, they realized gardening was one of the few activities that could be done safely with friends, outdoors and close to home. After helping a few neighbors with yard cleanups, “we recognized we could use our passion for gardening to enhance and give back to our community,” said Gallo.

We grow together as friends, and we’re growing in faith at the same time.” Camila Gutierrez, Pink and White Club president, St. Paul VI Catholic High School

The D.I.G. Club, short for Dignity in Gardening, aims “to unite our community and bring dignity to those who are not able to keep up their yards,” she said. “By uprooting weeds, we are rooting ourselves in the community and planting seeds of stewardship in our hearts.” 

The girls sought to make their club official by enlisting religion teacher Juliet Joly to be their faculty moderator. “They wanted to get more students involved in providing active service during the pandemic,” Joly said. “They’ve been really determined to make this happen.” 

When D.I.G. was added to O’Connell’s activity listings, about 55 students signed up, “which is a lot,” Joly said. Members have pulled weeds, planted flowers, painted pumpkins for porches and donated handmade wreaths to nursing homes. 

It’s become one of the fastest-growing clubs at the school, “and we know that our members will happily take on any project,” Cole said. 

Student-led clubs such as D.I.G. play a huge role in the lives of high school students across the diocese, providing opportunities to learn leadership and practical skills, as well as offering a taste of possible future careers. Most years, they must compete with sports for time and attention, but with athletics largely sidelined this year, clubs focused on everything from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to service and social support are enjoying a higher profile. And in a new world of social distancing and Zoom, many clubs have found creative ways to innovate and thrive.

Victoria Baker, a senior at Seton School in Manassas, has spent four years in the school’s VEX Robotics Club, where students learn to build and program small robots to compete in tournaments. Students work in teams to get the robot to pick up, transport and deposit red or blue balls in buckets to earn points, a little like robot basketball. The rules change every year, requiring new robots and different programming.

“Coming into high school, I was not a ‘STEM kid,’ ” she said, but the club showed her the real-world applications of science and math principles learned in the classroom. “My experiences as captain of my team in robotics taught me perseverance and leadership skills, as well as exposing me to computer science, the field that I am hoping to pursue in my future career,” she said.  

The club is “a tremendous learning opportunity,” said faculty sponsor Mark Hoffman, a retired Navy engineer who’s been teaching at Seton for almost 10 years. Seton hosted the only two in-person tournaments in the state this year, with numerous modifications to accommodate social distancing and safety. He livestreamed the events for the multitude of students and other spectators who couldn’t attend because of strict capacity limits. 

After being in the club, “almost all the kids go into engineering and computer science and those kinds of fields,” Hoffman said. “Most of them have a real inkling that this is right up their alley. They like it, so they pour their time into it, and then they do well. It keeps reinforcing itself.” 

Seton sophomore Rudy Gasser is hooked. “One of the greatest things about the robotics club is the aspect of working together toward a common goal. One member may come up with general ideas for the robot, while another uses their structural knowledge to put the ideas into practice, and another writes a program. Seeing the combined efforts of each member play out on the field during a competition is a great feeling, regardless of how well the team performs.” 

Other STEM-related clubs also have taken off this year across the diocese, including O’Connell’s CyberKnights Cybersecurity Club. Senior Elaine Ly laughs as she recalls her initial confusion when school librarian Eva Gonsalves told her about a networking competition her freshman year; she at first  thought networking referred to making business connections for future jobs. But she was intrigued and decided to check it out. Now she’s thinking about a career in data science or cybersecurity.

“At first, I was very intimidated because I had no clue where even to begin. Fortunately, two seniors were able to introduce me to the basic concepts, and from my first try onward, I became excited at the prospect of learning more about different commands and gadgets to accelerate our school's ranking on the charts. Now, I learn not only because of ambition and competitiveness, but because I am genuinely fascinated by all of the resources and strategies available to address real-world cyber problems” and data breaches, she said.

At Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Cameron Arnold said being one of the co-leaders of the Girls Who Code club “has kept me grounded and involved” as a fully remote student. “Each and every girl contributes and their knack for computer science inspires me,” she added. Club members teach each other new software and programming languages, and work with the Coding Club to host an annual "hackathon" event, all virtual this year. 

Ireton’s robust computer science department also offers other computer-related groups, including the Computer Science Honor Society, which this year helped teachers adapt to online learning and created a STEMbassadors program to mentor diocesan middle school students. “Being virtual has made it easier to connect with others, such as when we hosted a college panel of 13 computer science students studying at colleges across the country,” said Laura Segura, club president. 

Ireton has many other types of offerings as well, said Kevin O'Keefe, student activities coordinator. He listed numerous clubs whose students have created innovative programs or won honors at competitions, many now virtual.

The Model United Nations Club won awards for public speaking, diplomacy and quick thinking in crisis simulations at a recent conference. The Art Club created stencils of famous Hispanic artists to decorate the school’s spirit rock for Hispanic Heritage Month. Two Economics Club members won the Virginia Stock Market Game, in which students compete to earn the highest investment returns. Students can “learn and compete without the need to be in person,” said William Kopp, club president.

The new Minority Student Athlete Alliance helps student athletes “broaden their vision and knowledge of social justice and promote awareness in environments that are unequal in terms of racial backgrounds,” said Kennedy Clifton, founder and president. The club has hosted panel discussions with retired athletes and other high-profile guests via Zoom, on topics such as Athletes and the Law and Athletes and Money Management. 

Also this year, Ireton juniors Qin Kramer and Stella Hermann created an American Sign Language Club, to increase awareness of the deaf community and help students learn to sign. More than 50 students have registered, Hermann said, adding that “no one in the club is deaf, but many members know people who are deaf or hard of hearing.”

At O’Connell, social service and support clubs include Best Buddies, where members work with students in expanded services, and the One Love Club, created by Alexa Wootten to educate young people about relationship abuse. 

Some clubs focus on hobbies or just decompressing after school with friends, such as the Game Club at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Potomac Shores. “The club is like a family; we look out for each other,” said senior Jonathan Sipple.

Creating a welcoming space for girls is the goal of the longstanding Pink and White Club at St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Chantilly. The club meets every Friday after school to provide an informal setting for girls to pray together, share ups and downs, and work on service projects such as writing anonymous letters of encouragement to send to girls around the country. 

“It’s a chance to connect in a deeper way outside of the classroom,” said faculty adviser Kathleen Leffas, who teaches Theology of the Body for freshmen girls. The white in the club’s name is a reference to purity, she said. 

“We grow together as friends, and we’re growing in faith at the same time,” said Camila Gutierrez, who joined as a freshman and is now club president. “From my first time, I knew Pink and White was going to be an important part of my next four years.” 

“Now with the pandemic, things can seem a little lonely,” but she said the sense of community the club provides “hasn’t at all been lost, it’s just gotten stronger.”  

Across the board, teachers with a first-row seat to club activities express admiration for students’ initiative, creativity and hard work.

“This is my opportunity to show the kids that I believe in them,” said D.I.G. club moderator Joly. “I was believed in by an adult when I was a teen, and that’s one of reasons I became a teacher.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021