By Emma Paulini – 11th Grade, Fox Chapel Area High School
Imagine innovative, state-of-the-art technologies of present and future. Some might envision the newest iPhone, others a life saving medical device, while others might imagine a superhuman — a robot. How does this inventiveness begin? Often, it can come about through the creator’s exposure, education, and collaboration.
Here in Pittsburgh, an emerging generation of young people is learning the unique skills of robotics. For one week in August, twenty-four elementary and middle school girls and boys gathered to participate in Carnegie Mellon University’s “FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Skills camp”, mentored by Girls of Steel robotics team members. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”. The camp took place at the Carnegie Mellon University/Girls of Steel Practice Field on Liberty Avenue in the Strip District, a large space with plenty of room for creating and driving robots.
At first glance, working with technology may not appear interpersonal, but FLL illustrates that building robots can build a community. Campers bond while creating robots, solving challenges that robots must overcome, and conducting research. Dr. Terry Richards, FIRST Robotics Program Coordinator at Carnegie Mellon University, explained that Girls of Steel FLL Skills camp has grown much larger since last year.
Girls of Steel and FLL’s outreach is welcoming and collaborative, including young people from the greater Pittsburgh region and beyond. One camper, Kyra, mentioned that she has been exposed to robotics in her hometown, Sewickley, PA and came to Girls of Steel FLL Skills camp to learn more.
Parv, a student volunteer from FLL team “Robodisruptors”, his little brother, Nav, and their mother, Nidhi, a parent volunteer, travel from South Fayette to camp every day. They began a robotics team in their area and reached out to other teams, including Girls of Steel. The Girls of Steel FLL Skills camp is an ideal place for the family to explore robotics and learn with others. Parv said he “loves seeing the younger campers learn and grow as a team.”
Camper Rowan traveled from St. Louis, Missouri to participate in Pittsburgh’s FLL program this summer. After meeting the Girls of Steel team at the 2014 FIRST robotics championship competition, Rowan knew she wanted to become involved with Pittsburgh’s Girls of Steel. While there are small robotics teams starting up in St. Louis, Rowan enjoys the robust exposure to robotics and total immersion that Girls of Steel FLL Skills camp provides.
Rowan’s dad explained, “The team has been a big inspiration to [Rowan]… The girls have kind of become heroes for her!”
Throughout the week, campers were introduced to mechanical design, creation of robots using LEGOs, and basic programming to help them overcome robo-challenges.
Hannah, a camper/junior mentor, explained that she and the other mentors build challenge devices while campers create robots to solve these challenges. She showed me the missions, including closing a LEGO door, as well as spinning a color wheel, recognizing the chosen color, and returning the matching loop to home base. Robots compete in end-of-the-week matches, striving to complete missions with the best time.
Camper Janise explained, “It’s been really organized, and when you get done with one challenge, there’s always another cool thing to do.”
Besides completing robot challenges, campers also prep for a research project during their week at camp. Campers brainstormed solutions to “Trash Trek: How to Reduce Trash Buildup in Landfills” by diagramming and writing on large whiteboards. One team, the “Bot Makers,” discussed designing a recycling compound which would scan and categorize a given item, then pop open the corresponding recycling bin.
Activities throughout the week also included “reverse engineering,” in which campers deconstructed household appliances and analyzed their inner workings.
MJ, a camp volunteer, marvels at the tasks that the kids accomplish. As a retired mechanical engineer and FIRST robotics regional championship judge herself, she notes that students in Girls of Steel and FLL learn and teach complex concepts and skills at a young age. Robotics is an interdisciplinary activity, as various components come together while working on a team, such as managing electronics, programming, mechanical engineering, driving the robot, and even designing the team’s T-shirts. Most importantly, students must communicate well and work together to achieve success.
“It’s a cohesive concept — a lot of pieces go into the team besides just winning the competition. These are unique elements you wouldn’t see elsewhere,” MJ said.
No matter where the youth’s interests in robotics and S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) may lead, both campers and mentors at the Girls of Steel FLL Skills camp form a community for the future as they work together to create and explore the technology of robots.
For more photos of the Girls of Steel FIRST LEGO League Skills Camp, see the slideshow below.
Emma Paulini is a junior at Fox Chapel Area High School. She is on the Senior Staff of her school’s literary arts magazine, is published in the Ralph Munn Creative Writing Anthology, and has received Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Emma also enjoys dancing, cooking, and exploring the world.