When FIRST, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging engineering and scientific exploration in kids, needed a team that could showcase the group’s impact at its annual Inspire Gala event in November, they knew exactly who to call: Girl Scout Troop 3001 from Roosevelt Island.
The troop’s robotics team is a competitor in the FIRST Lego League, an international competition that challenges kids to present innovative solutions to real-world problems, as well as creating and programming Lego-based robots. At last year’s competition, the group’s first, they earned a spot at the regional semifinals.
Cornell Tech student Jivesh Tolani, left, helps Emily Eleusizov (right) work through an issue with one of the robots.
To celebrate FIRST’s partnership with the Girl Scouts of the USA, the 11 members of Troop 3001’s robotics team were invited to present their work to guests at the Inspire Gala, including FIRST’s founder, inventor Dean Kamen, and the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, Meredith Maskara. The group of fifth and sixth graders were also invited to attend the evening’s event, which included a formal dinner and a speech by President Barack Obama.
“It was so amazing,” says 10-year old Lily Kalb. “Obama was up there talking about the FIRST Lego League and how important it is, and then he called out, ‘Where are the girl scouts at?’ We were all standing on our chairs waving, and he waved back. I think I started crying I was so excited.”
“The feedback that we got from the CEO of the Girl Scouts of NYC, as well as FIRST, was that our girls were really spectacular,” says scout leader Heather Smith, the team’s head coach. “They were confident. They were up there talking to adults and making eye contact in a way you wouldn’t expect from 11-year-old girls.”
The Tech Hoppers presented their work to Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, at November’s Inspire Gala.
Smith says that the troop began exploring robotics two years ago in response to an initiative by the Girl Scouts of the USA to encourage science and technology education among its members. Looking for a bigger challenge, the girls decided to compete in the FIRST Lego League last year. They came away with second place in robot design at the regional qualifiers last spring, earning them a spot at the semifinals. Although they didn’t make it further, Smith says the girls were incredibly proud. “It’s really exceptional that we placed in our first attempt,” she says. “The girls were incredibly well prepared for a first-year team.”
As they now prepare for their second year of competition, the group says they are ready to go even farther.
The Tech Hoppers
On a recent Wednesday evening, the Maker Lab at Cornell Tech’s Tata Innovation Center (also known as the Bridge) was buzzing with activity. At the end of the room, a large table displayed a basic map and a collection of half-built robots, with boxes of gears and Lego pieces scattered nearby. Girl scouts moved between different stations, taking turns at building, researching, and working on the computer.
This year, Cornell Tech is sponsoring the team, providing space to work, as well as financial support for the robotics supplies.
“We wanted to be involved in robotics on this Island for a long time,” says Cornell Tech’s senior director of K-12 education, Diane Levitt. “It took us a while to find the right opportunity to sponsor.” She says that after learning of the team’s work in last year’s competition, she knew she’d found what she’d been looking for. “Everyone is very inspired by them. They are amazing.”
The team has renamed themselves the Tech Hoppers, an homage not only to Cornell Tech, but also to computer science pioneer Grace Hopper, who helped create the first compiler for computer languages.
“Cornell Tech has been a huge resource for us this year,” says Smith. “We really appreciated Island Kids letting us use their space last year to work, but it’s really nice to be able to leave our Legos out and not have to put everything away at the end of the day.” The team has also grown in the past year, from eight girls and one coach, to 11 girls with five coaches. “We’re being a lot more ambitious this year.”
Girl Scout Troop 3001’s Tech Hoppers meet at Cornell Tech’s Marker Lab once a week to prepare for the upcoming FIRST Lego League competition. From left to right: Louise, Lily, Lucia, Ashley, Louisa, Charlotte, Victoria, Izabel, Mira, and Emily.
For the upcoming competition, the group is researching ways to remove lead from drinking water. They will need to be able to offer a real world solution at the upcoming tournament. The girls also take turns learning to program the team’s robots for specific challenges. Although only two girls will control the robots at the competition, all team members are expected to help program them.
“It’s about being collaborative rather than just trying to win,” explains Smith. “It’s about more than just the game.”
Girl Scout Values
In addition to their regular troop meetings and responsibilities, the Tech Hoppers meet for two hours every week, as well as on occasional weekends. It’s a lot of work, but the girls say they enjoy the challenge.
“I didn’t know it would be this exciting” says 10-year-old Izabell Bokestad. “I’m glad I joined. It’s been really fun.” She says the most frustrating parts of the process is building something and then discovering that it doesn’t work right, and then having to build it again.
The group is currently gearing up for competition in the spring. The qualifiers will take place January 27. The Tech Hoppers are hosting a robotics scrimmage on December 30 exclusively for girl scout troops.
The team was also recently joined by two Cornell Tech student volunteers who have been mentoring the girls. Jivesh Tolani, an MBA candidate, says he enjoys watching their thought process as they solve problems. “As someone who just loves robots, it’s exciting to see kids younger than me doing stuff I wish I had been doing at their age,” he says. “This was stuff I was doing in undergrad. They are doing this now. I can just imagine what they’ll be doing when they get to college.”
Cornell Tech’s Levitt says she’s as excited about the competition as the girls are.
For Smith, the experience is about more than just robotics, it’s about emphasizing the values she believes the girl scouts stand for.
“As a troop, when we are given an opportunity, we follow through,” says Smith. “We give it our best effort. We can be counted on. It is an important lesson I like to share with the girls when we get to do fun things: people who can be counted on get asked to do more. That’s why we follow through on our promises even when we would rather stay home at times.”