Junior solar sprint competitors Sanders and Schlegel

Whatcom Middle School seventh grade students Luka Sanders and Luke Schlegel attended the Technology Student Association (TSA) national conference in Atlanta, Georgia this summer. The conference included competitions in an array of events. In the Junior Solar Sprint (JSS), the Whatcom team finished in fourth place nationally from among seventy solar cars from across the country, and even one from Japan.

Luke shared that the solar car race and waiting for the results were some of the things he remembers most about the conference. Aside from this adrenalin rush of competing, he also said that he enjoyed seeing the different sites in Atlanta. “It’s very different from Bellingham,” he said.

As in most conference settings, seeing what others are doing is a great way to learn and model. Luka said it was amazing to see other people’s projects “because they were all different and awesome.”

Both students would love to return to TSA Nationals again some day.

Whatcom Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) teacher and advisor to their TSA club Kristen Schlegel took a moment to talk about her experience at the conference with Luke and Luka and her STEM work in the district.

What were the biggest takeaways for the students who attended?

Schlegel:  The students learned that competition at this level is challenging. In some ways it’s tougher to get so close to the very top (the top 3 get trophies) and then not go home with the trophy. It took maturity for them to work through their disappointment, and yet they learned to appreciate that they did an absolutely outstanding job to get where they did. They also had to realize that it is not all about the accolades, but about learning from the process.

Another takeaway from nationals was seeing some of the high school leaders. They got to vote for the incoming national TSA officers. Each of the candidates made speeches in front of the 8,000 attendees. Seeing young people show such confidence and poise was a great example for them.

Lastly, these boys learned not to take a competition like this for granted. The fact that it was far away and expensive meant they had to put in some effort just to be able to afford to attend. They did work for neighbors to help raise money and wrote some letters to request support from local businesses. They also received some travel funds from the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation, which was greatly appreciated.

Do you feel the students of this generation have a particular desire around solar? 

Schlegel:  I think that this generation is more aware of different types of energy sources and the reasons that they are important more than previous generations. They are almost beyond the excitement of thinking of it as something new and just think of it as the necessary future. I notice this with technology in general. It is second nature to them and, in fact, they are to the point where they are starting to ask some of the big and challenging questions to make sure that we are using new technology responsibly and not just because it is exciting and possible. It’s great!

Tell me a little bit of how long you have worked in this area (CTE/engineering) and how long in the district? What are your passions in this area?

Schlegel:  I actually started out as a middle school English teacher many years ago. Through a series of events, I ended up getting my master’s degree in Instructional Technology at Western Washington University. That led to me starting my own videography business and then teaching pre-service teachers at the Woodring College of Education about using technology in the classroom.

When I decided to teach middle school again, I started looking for jobs that incorporated technology rather than English positions. I ended up teaching the technology/STEM elective at Shuksan Middle School four years ago as a leave replacement and then moved to Whatcom two years ago. Both of these jobs are career and technical education (CTE) positions, and so I have learned about the important role of CTE and have been taking classes to get my official CTE certification as well.

My passion in this area is giving kids the opportunity to try different creative and hands on projects in the area of STEM. My background is on the tech side of things (video editing, web design, etc.), but I have learned a lot about engineering design through this job and have seen how it can motivate students. I love that I get to teach a wide variety of things and this gives students the chance to find projects they enjoy. My hope is that they can find something they’re passionate about and see the potential opportunities that passion can hold for their futures.


  1. I am Kristen’s mother and Luke’s grandmother, so to say I am proud of them is an understatement! So proud of Luca also. What a great opportunity for them to discover their talents and learn camaraderie. The STEM program is a wonderful way to challenge and grow our future leaders of tomorrow.

  2. The Whatcom Middle School students in TSA club surpassed expectations in every event they participated in at the State level last spring. It was my pleasure to watch them create amazing projects and then present them at the State Meet. These students participated in a number of the Middle School events including creating video games, coding, balsa bridges (Structural Engineering/Design), website designs, dragsters, a “Rube Goldberg” device (mechanical engineering) and the solar sprint. I am looking forward to this next year, the 3rd since Kristen Schlegel started the club, to see what new types of projects will be explored. Kudos to all the students that try these challenging technology projects. (Please someone choose the VEX robotics!)

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