By Mike LaBella
---- — A group of students from Whittier Tech went to the National SkillsUSA competition and one of them walked away with a coveted gold medal.
Nate Bernard of Bradford was one of only 19 students from Massachusetts to win gold. Whittier masonry student Steve Quimby of Amesbury won a silver medal, making this duo the best and second best in the country in their shop programs.
Bernard, valedictorian of Whittier’s 2013 graduating class, won his gold medal in the SkillsUSA electronics technology event while Quimby took second place in the masonry event. The 49th annual SkillsUSA National Leadership & Skills Conference was held June 24 to 28 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Nearly 6,000 outstanding career and technical education students – all state contest winners – competed in 98 different trade, technical and leadership fields. They worked against the clock and each other, proving their expertise in occupations like electronics, computer-aided drafting, medical assisting and culinary arts.
“I’d never been challenged quite like this before,” Bernard said about the competition.
On the first day of the event, Bernard, 18, had to tackle two electronics certification exams. Questions ranged from calculating the impedance of a circuit to professionally interacting with customers. Bernard easily passed both with scores of 90 and 87.
On the second day, Bernard and his nearly 40 competitors were each given a smart power supply (NIDA 130E) and three circuit cards containing electronic faults. They had to diagnose problems ranging from shorted-out resistors to broken Integrated Circuits.
But about 30 minutes before he was to begin, Bernard realized he had forgotten the necessary circuit diagrams in his hotel room. His advisor, metal fabrication instructor Stephen Palmer raced back to the hotel, grabbed the handouts and raced back, arriving about 20 minutes into the competition.
“For the first 20 minutes I was sitting there pretending I knew what was going on,” Bernard said.
In a little under two hours, and with 10 minutes to spare, Bernard managed to diagnose 85 percent of the problems that were inserted into the circuit. Bernard said it was the highest score of the competition.
“I’ve always been really good at troubleshooting circuits,” he said.
“We also had to build a circuit by soldering components onto a printed circuit board correctly, neatly and in a given time limit,” he said. “I finished the final step just after the time limit, but I feel I did well otherwise.”
When the names of the winners were announced, Bernard jumped out of his seat.
“Everyone was giving me high-fives,” he said. “I was really happy.”
Bernard lugged his 25-pound oscilloscope around with him during the trip. He carried it on the plane, through airport check points, to the hotel, and the competition, where he used it to test circuits he was troubleshooting.
“Some kids brought digital oscilloscopes, which only weigh a few pounds and are about one-fifth the size of mine,” he said.
For winning a gold medal, Bernard, who plans to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute this fall, received a $1,500 scholarship, about $650 worth of Milwaukee brand of portable power tools, and a remote control helicopter. He’s also waiting to receive a Caterpillar brand electronics tool kit and possibly an oscilloscope. He said Whittier will receive a NIDA power supply for use in the classroom.
The road to the nationals began in April when students from Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School won 15 medals, eight of them gold, at the statewide SkillsUSA competition held in Marlboro. The total medal count for Whittier’s team set a school record. Typically, only gold medal winners are eligible to compete at the national level.
The school paid for the trip, flights and lodging for eight students, and two vocational teachers and one parent (who is also a staff member) served as chaperones.
Competing at this year’s national conference were Nathan Bernard, Electronics Technology; Steven Quimby, Masonry; Roy Rivas, Photography; Brittany Johnson, Culinary Arts; and Robert Sherbs, Alexandra Perez, Elissa Bornstein and Callie Merrill, who all competed in the Health Knowledge Bowl.
Earlier this year, Bernard was programming captain for Haverhill Robotics, a team of students who participated in Haverhill High’s Access21 program. Haverhill’s team, which formed an alliance with a team from Virginia and another from Arizona, programmed a robot that floated in zero gravity aboard the International Space Station. The event, called Zero Robotics, was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their computer code was uploaded to the space station and astronauts then loaded it into a robot called SPHERES. The robot had to follow programmed commands to achieve a score. Bernard said that in his team’s first attempt, their robot ran out of fuel, severely impacting their score. In their second attempt they lost to another team. But when the competition was run online with a simulator, where robots do not run out of fuel and are not subject to interference, Haverhill’s alliance won the event.
Karen E. Ward, executive director for SkillsUSA Massachusetts, said that as a state, Massachusetts captured 56 national medals; 19 gold, nine silver and 28 bronze, along with 17 Presidential Volunteer Service Awards, while 96 students earned SkillPoint Certificates (Certification of Industry Proficiency). Ward said the 56 medals represented the second highest medal total (high school and college level combined) in the nation, behind only Florida.