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Girls hone math and science skills by building robots

Team uses Lego pieces, motors for construction, programs all movements

By SAMUEL SPECIALE

DAILY MAIL STAFF

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When the Robo Roses, an all-girls robotics team from Elkview, first started building robots, they went through six models before they could properly execute a command. Now, as they prepare for their third competition in December, they can make adjustments to their robot and write a task-specific program in about an hour.

Rita Fernatt, the group’s mentor, said the girls have made tremendous strides since their initial interest in robots brought them together two years ago.

In their first year of competing for the First Lego League Championship, the group placed 17th out of 75. The next year, they moved up to sixth out of about 80.

While competition drives the girls, a bond of friendship keeps the group together.

It’s all part of the program’s set of core values of cooperation and participation, or what the girls refer to as “coopertition.”

So much an emphasis is placed on teamwork that the girls have lent a hand — or in this instance, a gear or two — to other teams who were having problems with their robots at the competition.

In addition to spending a few hours each week honing their skills as a group, each girl attends Elkview Middle and Girl Scouts, which is where they were first introduced to the idea of starting a robotics club.

While Rita Fernatt’s daughter, Shelby, 12,; Josie Moore, 12, and sister Savannah, 13; Lindsay Allman, 13; and Emily Chandler, 12, all have different interests and career aspirations beyond robotics, science and engineering, they all see themselves competing through high school.

The next Lego League doesn’t start until August, but the girls have entered a “Moon Bots” competition sponsored by Google. Over the next month, the girls will create a three-minute video about a simulated lunar mission.

The robot, which looks like the Mars Rover, is made of Lego pieces and is powered by two different motors — one for the wheels and another for the arm.

The girls call their robot “Rosy” on most days, but when its powering through obstacle courses like a monster truck, they prefer to call it “The Beast.”

In each competition, the girls must program the robot to perform tasks as it navigates across a mat strewn with pitfalls.

For each task, the robot must move autonomously, which requires the girls to spend hours programming its every movement. Some groups prefer to write one program, but the girls have found writing multiple programs has helped them do better.

Fernatt said all the work is done by the girls. As a mentor, she is only there to supervise and help them find the resources they need.

“They’re the ones working through formulas and calculations,” she said. “They’re the ones who take a bucket of parts and turn it into a functional robot.”

While the machine’s main purpose is competition, it can have more practical uses. For instance, the girls have created a program for it to serve drinks — which helps when they use the robot to sell lemonade.

While the girls are passionate about robotics, most are unsure if they will pursue science, technology, engineering or mathematics — STEM studies — in college.

Shelby Fernatt said she wants to become an engineer, but Josie Moore has her sights sent on becoming a lawyer.

Whether they pursue a career using their robotics skill set, the girls are part of a growing community of school-aged girls involved in a field historically dominated by men.

In elementary, middle and high school, both girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers, but fewer girls continue those studies when they reach college.

Even fewer make it to graduate school.

In a report by the American Association of University Women, it was found that women represent a small percentage of workers in science and engineering fields. Currently, only 31 percent of STEM-related degrees are awarded to women.

The report found that societal beliefs and the learning environments girls come through have an effect on their achievement as well as their interest in science, engineering and math. As a result, that negative stereotype can lower test performances.

Robin Sizemore, science coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education, said it is the department’s desire to see all students engaged in science and math related coursework, regardless of gender. In fact, the department was integral in creating a nationwide science education initiative called the Next Generation Science Standards.

While the state focuses on STEM education for all students, there are programs that target girls specifically.

There is a girls engineering day where female engineers from around the state meet eighth-graders and to talk about jobs and participate in engineering-themed activities.

The program was created by Amanda McClellen, chairwoman of drafting, applied and emerging technologies at Bridgemont Community and Technical College in Fayette County.

McClellen also sponsors the West Point Bridge Design day and created a program for students to practice building bridges at home.

Rita Fernatt, who is a database administrator for Brickstreet Insurance, said she couldn’t be more proud of the girls and that she would mentor them should they decide to pursue robotics or a science-related studies when they graduate from the Robo Roses.

Contact writer Samuel Speciale at sam.speciale@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4886. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wvschools.


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