Girls build robots too

Three local teams of your engineers, including two all-girl squads, are competing in the FIRST LEGO League Western Washington State Championship on Saturday at the ShoWare Center in Kent.

Members of the 'Minions in Disguise

A few swift keystrokes and Catalina Blanco brings her team’s robot to “life,” setting it on a course of preprogrammed “missions” to complete.

The robot, Dave Stewart George, named after their favorite minions from the movie “Despicable Me,” takes off with a ball in its launcher, moving just the right amount of inches forward, turning to the left, moving forward again and turning itself left again in a matter of mere seconds.

Dave Stewart George tosses the ball into the soccer-style goal and the team scores its much needed 50 points. Then it takes off for its next assignment, activating a level and catching a “ring” before it hits the floor.

While it may only be a practice, Blanco and her teammates celebrate the robot’s efficiency carrying out the missions. It’ll need to be speedy if they hope to take home the trophy.

Blanco and her 11 friends make up two of the few all-girls teams, and among the youngest, competing in this Saturday’s FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Western Washington State Championship held at the ShoWare Center in Kent.

Her team, “Minions in Disguise,” received the mechanical design award during the last round of competition and her friend’s “Blue Angels” team received the programming award for using outstanding programming principles.

Catalina’s mother, Marjorie Blanco, a software engineer for Boeing who coaches both all-girls teams as well as a third, co-ed team, “The Dark Knights,” said she couldn’t be prouder as all three advanced to the championship out of the 450 teams competing.

“Even though they’re mostly elementary school students, these girls are our future leaders,” Blanco said, adding she hopes they continue to sharpen their skills and find joy in STEM fields. “This is my second year of coaching robotics. I did it because there’s not that many strong female role models they can look up to.”

The FLL, a division of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), introduces younger students, ages 9 to 14, to real-world engineering challenges or “missions” by building and programming LEGO-based robots to complete tasks on a specific, thematic playing surface.

“It really gives them an opportunity to explore in a safe environment. To not be afraid of taking risks,” Marjorie said. “For us, it’s not just about the core, but the overall presentation. Did they take time to critically think about their project? Are they going to do this again? What are their core values? I’m really proud of their effort. The entire teams are very supportive of each other.”

Their teamwork has been a key component of their success and their drive to fix whatever problem is thrown their way, she added.

Afifah Kashif, 10, said the ability to lean on her teammates when they’re struggling to figure out what might have gone wrong with their robot has led them to the championship.

“It’s the engineering design process. Think of what we want to do and test it,” she said.

If the robot doesn’t move the amount of space they were trying for, or turns at the wrong angle to maneuver across the playing surface, it may be frustrating, but it certainly doesn’t keep any of the teams down, Kashif said.

“If it doesn’t work the first time, we’ll do it two more times, check the angle, recheck the angle,” she said. “We don’t let it take us down.”

Kashif’s compadres, 11 year olds Neil Chowdhury and Jessica Massey, echoed her resilience.

“It’s stressful when the robot doesn’t work,” Chowdhury said, adding the 2 minute 30 second time limit each team has to get their robot to complete missions certainly adds to the intensity. “Maybe it’s turning too much, but whatever the problem is, we have to just keep trying.”

The stress melts away when the robot does what it’s supposed to, Massey said.

“When our robot works there’s a real sense of accomplishment,” she said. “We’re proud.”

All three teams will present their robots for inspection Saturday morning before the competition to ensure there’s no illegal pieces, then they’ll have to make the tough choice of what missions they want their robots to tackle.

“A major part of the strategy is picking missions their robots can complete in the two and half minutes,” their coach said.

Each team is aiming to complete seven or eight missions in the hopes to score the most points their robot is capable of in the time allotted.

The competition is slated to begin at 9 a.m. at the Kent ShoWare Center, 625 W. James St., and the event is free to the public.

“No matter what happens they’re in the championship and I’m proud,” Marjorie said.


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