Ellis' STEAM Powered Girls

The STEAM Powered Girls are on the fast track to big things. With a tiny chicken mascot and their simple yet effective robot named Henry, this crew of thirteen fifth and sixth graders represent Ellis in the FIRST LEGO League (FLL). They code, they design, they engineer, they vlog, and they have a lot of fun doing it.
The FLL is a team-based robotics program that "guides youth through STEM learning and exploration at an early age. From Discover, to Explore, and then to Challenge, students come to understand the basics of STEM and apply their skills in an exciting competition while building habits of learning, confidence, and teamwork along the way.” 

When I spent the afternoon at practice with the STEAM Powered Girls (their team name), they had just won fourth place (trophy included) at their last competition, a victory that was made particularly meaningful because they were one of only a few all-girl teams in attendance. 

When I spoke with Jackie Dame, the team’s coach as well as Ellis’ seventh and eighth grade science teacher, about what makes FLL such a meaningful activity, Jackie raved about the benefits of problem-solving, both individually and as a group. During practice, each participant may have a slightly different focus (building the robot, writing code for a particular task, doing test-runs, revising and rebuilding as necessary), but everyone’s individual efforts contribute to the group’s overall success. Practicing for FLL is inherently an iterative process, with teammates trying various approaches until they work as planned and problem-solving when what had worked previously suddenly doesn’t. While the trial-and-error cycle may sound frustrating, the spirit of camaraderie and the positive approach that the Ellis team brings to the work is part of what makes the STEAM Powered Girls so successful.

One sixth grader, when asked what her favorite part of FLL was, gushed about writing code on the fly during a competition, while another agreed that writing code to make a robot complete specific tasks was a really amazing skill to have. Others enjoyed building Henry the Robot, who looks unassuming but is capable of doing a wide variety of tasks. Several teammates also mentioned the sweet taste of Dairy Queen as they celebrated as a team after the competition. One student who participated last year also mentioned how much more she appreciates the activity this year when they’re able to attend competitions in person and see other teams’ robots in action.

What I found most striking about FLL practice was the unbridled energy and enthusiasm in the room. Though the team’s season is technically over, they took it upon themselves to create a new challenge: building an "FLL-Kart” course for their robot inspired by the video game Mario Kart. One team member, who was filming practice on an iPad when I arrived, was easily convinced to turn her impromptu recording session into a promo video to recruit new members for next year’s team. And there was an enthusiastic subset of the team eagerly prototyping different chicken images in kilt-themed colors for the team’s t-shirt for next year. They also invited the FTC Robotics team, made up of seventh and eighth graders as well as Upper School students, to see their robot in action and celebrate their successful year.

While women are still woefully underrepresented in STEM fields, it was inspiring to spend the afternoon with the next generation of innovators joyfully learning from and with one another, utilizing one another’s strengths as they worked toward their common goal. For these Ellis students, there is nothing unusual about women working together to build, lead, problem-solve, and compete in scientific fields. If they can make Henry operate a drawbridge as fifth graders, I can’t wait to see what they’ll do as adults.