RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Students in Rhonda Hawley’s class at Linwood Holton Elementary School in Richmond tested out brand-new robots and tablets on Wednesday that were purchased using a $30,000 prize awarded to Hawley as part of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Mission Possible Makerspace Nation competition.

Hawley said she was initially inspired to enter the Makerspace Nation competition from a friend who found success in last year’s competition.

“One of my friends won last year,” Hawley said. “I saw the wonderful things that she was able to do in her classroom, and so I said, ‘We can try it.'”

Hawley eventually submitted an application video that got not just her class, but the whole school involved.

“I actually got two students from every class in the school, and we went out front. So every child, every class was represented, and they all welcomed everybody to our school,” Hawley said of the application video submitted for the competition. “We did an interview with some of our 4th and 5th graders, talking about what makerspaces are and how we would spend our money.”

Returning to the school after having broken her ribs during a trip to New York, Hawley was shocked to find out this past spring that she had won the competition.

When 8News visited Linwood Holton on Wednesday, 2nd graders were using newly purchased tablets to code spherical robots. As the students became more familiar with the technology, Hawley challenged them to work together to solve problems, such as coding the robot in such a way that it would weave through the legs of the students’ chairs around the classroom.

“I liked being able to just draw something crazy and then having the robot just move anywhere,” one student said.

Each week, the approximately 500 students at the elementary school cycle through Hawley’s classroom to use the new technology, with different applications based on their respective ages.

“We did the Sphero BOLTs for the 2nd to 5th graders, and then, for our kindergarten and 1st graders, they have little Indy cars,” Hawley said. “We can actually use their creativity and ingenuity to solve problems. I give them challenges. They work cooperatively together, and those are some skills they really need to work on, especially after that virtual year. They lost a lot of the socialization, and so they’ve told me when they come into this class, they know they’re going to get to do something. So that makes me happy.”

With 23 years at Richmond Public Schools and the last four at Linwood Holton, Hawley said she is constantly searching for ways to keep her students’ interests peaked. Although the $30,000 award also enabled her to get 3D printers and a new organizational space for the classroom, Hawley said the learning experience for students goes beyond only using technology.

“We’re doing the science, the technology, the engineering, the art and the math,” she said. “That sometimes happens all at once, each day, or maybe we’ll just focus on one or the other.”

For Hawley, that means not only getting kids involved in coding through the use of tablets and robots, but using other hands-on teaching tools like — like her collection of spiders, another tool students get to see and use in her classroom.

“With all the focus on technology, kids are losing the sense of wonder for the outside world and nature,” she said. “When they find out all the neat and cool things about spiders — because each one has a little something different — when they find out about that, it intrigues, and the more knowledge you get, the less fear you have, and then you can appreciate something and see the wonder in it.”

Hawley hopes that the new tools that have come from the competition not only inspire her students, but other teachers to get involved.

“My hope is that they will understand that the things that they do in here and fall in love with, they can do as a career. Giving them the opportunity to learn all of these different technologies and strategies, and working together, these are skills that 21st-century students need to have to go into the workplace, and they will be sought after,” Hawley said. “It’s inner city schools that need a little extra help, and if the teachers are engaged enough to submit, apply for the grant, then they’re going to be engaging with the kids to use the materials.”

Hawley was among three teachers on the east coast who won the competition. The other two teachers were in Baltimore, Md. and Washington, D.C.

The $30,000 prizes for each of the three winners were funded by the CIA through the federal government.

The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) was part of Wednesday’s classroom unveiling in Richmond. The institution is a U.S. Department of Energy asset that is dedicated to enabling scientific, research and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination, according to its website.