Phoenixville's Kao heads winning student engineering team

Athena Kao of Phoenixville led a team of seven Commonwealth Connections Academy students to win first place at the 2012-13 Pennsylvania Real World Design Challenge, which challenges students in engineering and critical problem solving. The team now moves on to compete against other state winners at the national competition in April.

This is the third consecutive year Commonwealth Connections Academy (CCA), a cyber charter school, has captured the state title. Kao, a senior, has captained the team for the past two years.

This year’s competition challenged the students to design an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with engineering software and plan a mission to rescue a child lost in the Philmont Ranch in New Mexico. The teams were instructed to find the child in the least amount of time while also minimizing the total cost.

“Competitions like this give us a chance to solve a STEM problem through research, project deigns and good team work,” said Kao. “It’s an excellent way to encourage the potential scientists and researchers of the future.”


Since Kao’s team members live in different areas of the state, the students met virtually via LiveLesson sessions – a virtual classroom environment where students can chat with each other, share ideas on the screen and speak in real-time through microphones. While some may see this as an obstacle to success, Kao thought it helped her team strengthen their communication skills.

CCA’s RWDC coach and chemistry teacher Ann Camp agreed that good communication was one of the team’s keys to victory. “They continue to win because they have learned to work so well as a team,” said Camp. “They keep each other focused and were able to all stay on task throughout the entire competition. I’m extremely proud of the students’ dedication and motivation.”

The Real World Design Challenge is an annual competition run by a public-private partnership with the goal of sustainably increasing the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) workforce. The partners are focused on transforming STEM education in the United States by providing professional science and engineering and learning resources to students and teachers. This year, more than 40 different states participated.

CCA and the other state-level winners will receive new project guidelines for the National Competition. Project submissions are due April 5, after which students travel to Washington, D.C. to present before a panel of judges April 19-21.

Commonwealth Connections Academy combines the expertise and accountability of public education, with strong parental and the flexibility of technology-enhanced learning. Because it is a Pennsylvania public school, there are no costs for tuition, fees or supply costs. CCA serves Pennsylvania students in grades K-12. For more information, please visit