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Alabama AEM Dr. Virginia Vilardi enjoys sharing her passion for STEM topics

Posted on October 7, 2020 at 11:28 AM by Virginia Smith

Portrait of Dr. Virginia Vilardi

Dr. Virginia Vilardi has been a high schoolteacher for 25 years.

October 7, 2020

Meet Dr. Virginia Vilardi, who has just started her 25th year teaching at a high school in Wetumpka, Alabama. She became a Civil Air Patrol Aerospace Education Member (AEM) five years ago after learning about the program from another teacher. After playing school with her friends as a young girl, she always wanted to be a teacher. "I love learning, and passing on that passion to others is something that I feel called to do." CAP's Rocketry STEM Kit helped her school start a rocketry program. She also is coach and teacher for the Wetumpka High School STEAM Machine robotics student organization, who recently completed a community service project that modified a motorized car to help the mobility needs of a 2-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. We asked her some questions about teaching and being an AEM, and her answers follow.

Tell us about your school/organization.

I am starting my 25th year at Wetumpka High School, a public school of about 1,200 students located in the City of Wetumpka, Alabama. It is part of the Elmore County School District. I teach students in grades 9-12. The classes I teach this year are Robotics Applications, Introduction to Robotics, AP Physics and AP Computer Science. I also teach part time for the Elmore County Virtual School the Edge. For the Edge I teach all science classes for grades 6-12 from Physical Science to AP Biology.

How many years have you been an educator? 

I have been involved in education for 31 years. I have taught in three different states (my husband was military) and a great variety of classes and students. The desire to teach was something that I found I loved early in life playing school with my friends. I love learning, and passing on that passion to others is something that I feel called to do. This is the main reason that I have not retired, even though I am eligible. I love what I do; it motivates me, inspires me to do more! I love when students have success and understand that they can build on that success for an amazing future! 

Please list awards/honors/achievements you have received as an educator that you would like to include.

  • 2020 U.S. Presidential Scholars Program’s Distinguished Teacher
  • 2020 Air Force Association (AFA) Teacher of the Year, State of Alabama, Montgomery Chapter
  • 2020, 2019, 2018, 2014 Alabama Junior Academy of Science Teacher of the Year
  • 2020, 2019 AMSTI Robotics Grant Recipient
  • 2019 Society for Science and the Public STEM Research Grant Award
  • 2015 AFA Teacher of the Year, Montgomery Chapter
  • 2015 White House Science Fair Honoree
  • 2013 Icare Technology Teacher of the Year
  • 2012 South’s BEST Teacher of the Year
  • 2010 Alabama Academy of Science Fellow Award
  • 2010-11 National/World BEST Robotics Champion Team Mentor
  • 2009 Alabama Secondary Teacher of the Year Runner Up
  • 2009 Gorgas Scholarship Program Outstanding Teacher Mentor
  • 2008 Joseph B. Whitehead Educator of Distinction Award
  • 2007-present Golden Key International Honor Society, University of Alabama
  • 2006-2019 Alabama/ War Eagle/Troy Montgomery BEST Robotics Champion Team Mentor
  • 2006 Virginia Vilardi Academic Scholarship established by Robotics Team Parents
  • 2007, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014 South’s BEST Regional Robotics Winning Team Coach
  • 2007 International Junior Civitan Hall of Fame Inductee (1999-2003 Advisor of the Year)
  • 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007 Lake Jordan HOBO Association Environmental Grant
  • 2007 Legacy Mini Grant for Environmental Projects
  • 2003, 2004 Elmore County Foundation Grant Award
  • 2002, 2003, 2004 Central AL Electric Cooperative Grant
  • 2001 Woodrow Wilson National Fellow

How many years have you been involved in Civil Air Patrol?

About 5 years

How did you get involved in the Civil Air Patrol AEM program?

Another teacher at the school recommended it to me.

Please describe the Civil Air Patrol Aerospace Education programs you participate in and why you participate. What benefits do your students get from the CAP programs you use?

My program frequently uses the CAP AE STEM kits to enhance student hands-on learning. The kits are a wonderful addition to the learning and understanding of my students. The kits allow the students not only to learn the concepts but also to use them, test them, revise them and retest them. The kits make it so each student has the supplies that they need for an activity without using the teacher’s limited budget.

What do you like about Civil Air Patrol programs/materials?

I love that everything is included -- curriculum and all of the supplies. When the box arrives, the students light up because they know something exciting is inside.

Please describe how the end-of-year stay at home restrictions last year changed how you do your job, if so. How did you make the best of the situation for your students? 

Going virtual with my students last year and even some this year was/is a challenge. We did and still do frequent Zoom meetings to keep everyone instructed and informed about lessons and requirements. Email, Texting, Google Classroom and Remind provided ways to communicate and have now become part of the system that we use daily. Teachers have to be very organized to maximize time with students and time they have to do all of the old and new requirements.

We started off the year in person with a virtual option for students that felt safer at home. I do Zoom meetings in all of my classes. This way, those at home are still part of the class. We make sure to have them interact not just be there. The interaction for the ones at home is important to keep them from feeling isolated. Reaching out through the meetings helped them. Sometimes in the meetings the students just need to chat – at this time, that is as important,if not more important, as any instruction.  

Please tell us about the community service project by the robotics students at Wetumpka High School.

The WHS STEAM Machine's Go Baby Go project was aimed at giving greater mobility and facilitating the ability to play like a normal child for Stella, a 2-year-old toddler with cerebral palsy that caused her to have limited strength in her body core. Our team was approached last year to see if we could design and build something that would meet this need for Stella.

The team met with Stella and her mom, Sarah Kirkpatrick, to brainstorm possibilities last fall. The team then did research and found the Go Baby Go site sponsored by the University of Delaware. The site supplied the team with a curriculum and some construction advice. From this information, the team shopped for the toy that would meet their requirements as well as be able to grow with Stella. They chose a pink Jeep.

The car was delivered, assembled, and was in the wiring process when COVID hit and everyone was in quarantine. This delay was upsetting but unavoidable. When we came back to school, the team finished the wiring challenge and set up a meeting with Stella to do another fitting. This was a very important step because Stella grew substantially from the first meeting, but her new support seat fit almost perfectly in the car. With input from Stella's mother, the team decided on simple movements for Stella to be able to control the car's movement and "swag" functions with her red and yellow buttons, leaving more advanced movements to be controlled by her parents on the remote control. The car can also connect with Bluetooth to the mom's device to play Stella's favorite music.

This community outreach has helped our team to see all the possibilities of things that they could do with their skill set in the future.

(Read more about this project in this news story.)

Why do you teach in the Aerospace Education/STEM area?

I love STEM – this includes aerospace and rocketry to robots and computer science. I grew up in the age of the race to the Moon and Jacques Cousteau. I think STEM just became part of me through that.

What is the best advice you have for a new AEM working with CAP programs and materials?

Test and try different ones. Order STEM Kits early so that you have time to review the material before you plan on using it. Make sure to plan extra time for students to be creative and extend the activity. 

Please tell an anecdote of a rewarding experience you have had working with students or colleagues using CAP programs:

When our school decided to start a rocketry team we knew nothing about making rockets. CAP supplied us with the rocketry kit to help us learn. The students took great pains over designing all aspects of their rockets. Then it was time to launch. Their excitement when their rocket took off was contagious to all. Now, when we launch, practice on the ball fields often stops so the players can watch the rockets fly, too!

The 2019-2020 WHS STEAM Machine poses for a team picture with their coach, Dr. Virginia Vilardi
The 2019-2020 WHS STEAM Machine poses with their coach, Dr. Virginia Vilardi.


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