Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Building Robots (and Confidence, too!) by Guest Blogger James Langan with Patty Donohue-Brown

The proliferation of technology in the last several decades has left in its wake a plethora of gadgets – some useful, some not – and has induced among the citizenry some curious habits that would have left previous generations scratching their heads.  More than a few of us have purchased cell phones and faithfully lug them along in our travels so that we might “stay connected,” but then turn them off so we don’t drown in a deluge of unwanted calls.  Others may claim cell phones are only for emergencies; but if true, we should also be carrying around defibrillators, fire extinguishers, Tibetan-English phrase books, and C-Rations.  After all, you never know. 

But technology is not just for yakking and hacking.  In fact, the Girl Scouts of Nassau County’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs use technology as one of its chief means to build girls of courage, confidence, and character.  Our FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Robotics Program, for example, allows teams of Girl Scouts from grades four through eight to work with LEGO-based robots, develop and present research projects, and compete in FLL Tournaments.  One FLL team, Merrick Masters, created an adaptive tennis racket for tennis players with a weak grip and received a grant to continue its development.

Our FIRST TECH Challenge (FTC) program, which is for high school students, allows girls working in teams to design, build, and program highly sophisticated robots and compete in FTC Tournaments.  Both the FLL and the FTC programs challenge girls in real-world science and technology – allowing them to develop strategies for building robots based on sound engineering principles.   The FTC team, ICEBREAKERS, built a robot designed to successfully get over hurdles in a daunting obstacle course.

At both FLL and FTC Tournaments, girls receive awards for competition, community outreach, robotic design, and other fun stuff. The Girl Scouts of Nassau County now has five FLL teams and one FTC team— and each of these teams has won awards this season.  Not wanting to rest on its laurels, the ICEBREAKERS will be competing at the FIRST WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP in St. Louis, Missouri in April!

Awards are nice, but our Robotics program also provides other, more subtle benefits:  Besides helping to cast aside damaging stereotypes about girls’ ability in science and math, it also breeds confidence and awakens girls to their true potential – allowing them to develop valuable life skills and discover exciting new career opportunities.

In a local restaurant, a group of girls once explained to a waiter, who had asked about their Lego team T- shirts, that they had just come from a LEGO robotics tournament.  He was really impressed and said, “Wow, you all must be very smart.”  The girls beamed.  Maybe nobody had ever told them that before; and maybe, after that simple act of validation, they could see themselves in a new light for the first time. 

Insight about one’s potential being key to its realization, the waiter’s gift was priceless.  And the beauty of our Robotics program is that it can provide that same insight to all girls – regardless of their economic background or current academic standing – so that they can truly make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others.  And it’s fun too!

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