Members from the GENIUS (Girls Exploring New Ideas Using Science) robotics team won the “Making a Difference” Judges’ Award at the FIRST LEGO League World Festival in St. Louis, where 80 teams competed. They’re now gearing up for this season’s competition.
The girls seem to be defying the statistics that show female students are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Although women make up nearly half the national workforce, statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce show that only 24 percent of STEM jobs are held by women.
Sarah Tsai, 12; Annika Garbers, 13; Keren Park, 13; Aidan Kedzierski, 12; Amanda Pham, 13; and Grayson McMichael, 14, all have varying interests outside of school, but share a common fondness for science. Together, they won a series of tournaments for their camera system, designed to solve the problem of limited visibility behind wheelchairs.
“I really like science, and I like to read all the sciency magazines,” said Aidan, a Dickerson Middle School student, before pausing. “I’m a geek.”
“Yes, we’re all geeks. And we’re proud of it!” Sarah said.
Indeed, the girls’ parents joked that they’re more interested in Mozart than will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who performed during a private concert for participants at the World Festival. It was the first concert they’ve attended.
FIRST LEGO League is a robotics program for 9- to 16-year-olds, designed to get them excited about science and technology. It’s a partnership between FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and the LEGO Group. Every September, a new challenge is announced that focuses on a real-world scientific topic.
Each challenge has two main parts: a robot game and a research project. Teams, coached by one adult, design and operate autonomous robots, built with LEGO Mindstorms, to score points during a game. Teams must also develop a solution to a problem they have identified. Biomedical engineering was the theme of last season’s challenge.
The GENIUS team qualified at Wheeler High School last December, won a regional competition at Southern Polytechnic State University and the state finals at Georgia Tech in January, and won the Judges’ Award in April at the World Festival.
They were coached by Lydia Kedzierski.
The girls’ project, the backup camera system, was inspired by an 11-year-old friend, Quinn Schnitzlein, who has been wheelchair-bound for most of his life, as a result of Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Like many people in wheelchairs, Quinn said he often bumped into objects because he couldn’t see them behind the back of his wheelchair.
“I had been in a restaurant with Quinn…he kept turning around trying to talk to me — I was at the table behind him — and he kept bumping into some other people,” recalled Amanda, who is homeschooled.
“The camera system is a backup camera system that would normally be used on a car. We have mounted the camera to the back of Quinn’s wheelchair with the help of the engineers from CATEA (Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access) at Georgia Tech. Dr. Stephen Sprigle helped us.”
A mother attending a presentation to Girl Scout leaders at Lockheed Martin last February was so impressed that she asked the team to build a camera system for her young daughter, who had problems backing up onto a wheelchair ramp. The girls, who received some donations, did it at no charge.
“She thought that it would be really helpful,” said Keren, who attends Dodgen Middle School with Sarah.
The girls said they have no desire to patent their camera system, preferring to allow others in need of such a device to freely take advantage of their project.
Earlier this year, researchers from the Harvard Family Research Project examined STEM initiatives, which have gained a lot of attention in education circles in recent years. In exploring how such out-of-school science and math programs must retain girls involved, it’s important they take an “inclusive approach to ensure that girls feel welcomed and comfortable with the materials,” the researchers said.
The Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta’s STEM programming, through partnerships with Georgia Tech, Southern Polytechnic State University and Lockheed Martin, offers a range of programs including robotics, animation software, chemistry, cell phone programming and aeronautics.
Asked if the FIRST LEGO League tournament experience has fueled their interest in STEM careers, the girls said that it did, naming engineering as their first choice.
“Before I joined the robotics club, I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up,” Keren said. “But now this experience has opened my eyes to science and technology. Engineering is appealing to me more.”
This season’s FIRST LEGO League challenge will explore the topic of food safety. More than 200,000 children from over 55 countries are expected to participate.
The GENIUS team is looking for sponsors and donations to assist with their trip. The team’s website is: geniusrobotics.com.