After winning the Montana Regional Apollo Next Giant Leap Challenge in July, as the only all-girl team among 20 teams, a group of Kalispell Girl Scouts has its sights set on a new goal: getting more girls into robotics.
The team, called the RoboScout Squad, is the only LEGO Robotics team in the Flathead Valley, and one of the few Girl Scout LEGO Robotics teams in the state. Their success in the intense, 20-minute challenge was the culmination of a summer of dedication and teamwork.
The Montana Regional Apollo Next Giant Leap Challenge was themed around a space mission. Teams had to pilot a LEGO replica of the lunar module to “land” on a map of the moon’s surface. Each team chose space-themed costumes, and the Girl Scouts became the “Lunar Loonies,” dressed as space cartoon characters for the competition.
To win, 14-year-old Katie Eberhardy and 13-year-old Jessie Chadwick carefully piloted a LEGO robot to pick up block-shaped “samples” and move them around a map filled with obstacles. The catch: Eberhardy, who controlled the robot, was behind a wall and couldn’t see the map. Chadwick had to give directions while Eberhardy wrote code to make the robot move.
Completing a challenge like that can be stressful, especially because of the speed at which competitors work.
“At practice, you think, I have time, I can do whatever I want,” Chadwick said. “But now [in the competition] you’re on a time limit.”
The challenge was even more difficult for the RoboScout Squad because they had only two members working on the task, while other teams had five. The squad’s third member, Lexi Nunnally, is too old at 15 to compete in the middle school division with her teammates.
Despite their reduced numbers, the team triumphed, winning the middle school division of the competition. For their prize, the girls get a trip to NASA, where they will be visiting the Kennedy Space Center in November. The team is fundraising to cover trip expenses, which are only partially covered by the award.
The win is the latest success for the RoboScout Squad, which has been participating in LEGO Robotics competitions since 2017, when the Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming received a grant to start LEGO Robotics teams within their troops. Krista Nunnally, one of Kalispell Troop 3709 leaders, decided to start a team.
Since Nunnally didn’t have a lot of robotics experience, she recruited Sherri Sadino, a retired teacher who had been teaching LEGO robotics at Flathead Valley Community College’s Kid’s College, to help her coach the team. Together, Sandoli and Nunally have coached the girls through three seasons in First LEGO League.
Although the team has been successful, operating hasn’t always been easy. LEGO Robotics requires expensive equipment and travel to competitions, and funding is difficult to secure. Unlike many teams, the group is not supported by or affiliated with a local school.
Most of all, Nunnally has found that it can be a challenge to recruit girls to a robotics team, because many feel discouraged by STEM subjects from a young age.
“They start losing interest in fifth grade,” Nunnally said. “They think they can’t do it; they think it’s for boys.”
The RoboScout Squad wants to change that by attracting more girls to robotics and mentoring younger girls, hopefully leading to more teams. They will be hosting a Robotics Day in October for other Girl Scouts in the area to learn about robotics and earn robotics badges.
Through programs like LEGO Robotics, Nunnally said, girls can learn important skills to help them succeed in STEM subjects in the future.
“The logical thought processes, those building blocks for good mathematical thinking later, are so important,” she said.
LEGO Robotics is a good way for girls to get into STEM activities, Sadino said, because it’s an approachable technique that anyone can learn.
Through competing and mentoring, the RoboScout Squad wants to show younger girls that robotics “isn’t that scary,” Sadino said.