GaCo receives 2024 Appalachian Laboratory Inspiration Award

June 11, 2024
GaCo students, volunteers, and parents receiving award.

The Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) recently presented FIRST Robotics Competition Team 1629 Garrett Coalition (GaCo) with the 2024 Appalachian Laboratory Inspiration Award.

The award, launched in 2022 as part of the Appalachian Laboratory’s 60th anniversary, recognizes those individuals, non-profit organizations, and for-profit firms that support or engage in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) activities in the tri-state region surrounding Frostburg, Maryland.

“Every scientist at our lab, working at the highest levels of scholarship, has an origin story that starts with a science encounter as a young person – mine was in propagating native plants and removing invasive Brazilian pepper plants at the Fern Forest Nature Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida,” said Dr. David Nelson, Appalachian Laboratory, director and professor. “With this award, we want to recognize those individuals and organizations, like GaCo, who are playing a part in the stories of future scientists.”

First established in 2004, GaCo, based in Garrett County, Maryland, is a FIRST robotics team composed of 22 students from Northern and Southern Garrett High Schools. The team has consistently competed at the district, regional, and world levels and has been the recipient of the prestigious Chairman’s Award at eighteen competitions. In 2022, the team was recognized with the Chairman’s Award at the world championship. The Chairman’s Award, the highest honor conferred by FIRST, is presented to the team that has had the most significant and measurable impact on their schools and communities. In 2023, GaCo was inducted into the FIRST Hall of Fame.

“We are so very grateful to the Garrett County Commissioners for nominating us for this award,” said Chuck Trautwein, GaCo lead mentor and advisor. “Although we’ve been recognized at the world level for the impact our team is making in our schools and community, the Appalachian Laboratory Inspirational Award is much more meaningful. It celebrates the difference we have been able to make in Garrett County and in the central Appalachian region and is so encouraging to us.”

GaCo mentors and students with advisor Chuck Trautwein, Appalachian Laboratory Director David Nelson, and 2024 Team 1629 robot.

To meet GaCo’s vision of “All kids-STEM Ready,” team members have developed and taught “Waypoint” lessons to every student in the Garrett County School system for the past eleven years. Lessons engage second, third, fourth, and fifth grade students in standards-based activities designed to develop skills essential for STEM success, including spatial reasoning, proportionality, and computational thinking. More than 6,000 students have participated in these activities. 

GaCo is currently in its second round of funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to replicate its program to other rural school districts in Appalachia.

“Our ‘Waypoint’ lessons are awesome and the fact that they are taught by our team’s high school students make them even more amazing,” said Trautwein. “We love to share about them and the wonderful support we get from the ARC and our generous donors that makes it all possible.”

The award was presented on May 15, 2024, at a special ceremony held at the Performing Arts Center (PAC) at Garrett College, site of past GaCo events and tournaments. To learn more about GaCo, visit

Nominations for the 2025 award will open in October 2024. Visit, or contact Rhonda Schwinabart, Coordinator of External Affairs, at 301-689-7102, or to learn more about the Inspiration Award and how community members can become involved.