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All-Girl Robotics Team Makes Debut In Statewide Contest

Kaylyn_and_Alexis.jpg
Charlotte Albright
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Kaylyn Scoskie and Alexis Taylor-Young collaborate on Lego robot at South Royalton School.

Over the weekend, 150 students from 17 schools all over Vermont competed for a chance to take their Lego robots to  a championship round in New Hampshire next month.  The competition is sponsored by a non-profit called FIRST, an acronym that stands for  “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

The only all-girl Lego League came from  South Royalton. They have been practicing hard for this year’s tournament, called “Disaster Blaster.” Budding engineers are programming mobile robots to navigate a flood-ravaged Lego town and provide timely aid.

During a recent practice in a vacant home-economics classroom, girls on the Royal Robotics team wearing matching yellow T-shirts rehearsed an original song to introduce their tournament entry.

“I turned on the radio on, I called FEMA to say there was a flood coming and now they’re on their way. Before you leave your house put out some hay bales and then turn off the power because it’s on it’s way…”

At the other end of the classroom, two other girls deployed the team’s boxy, one-armed robot through a Lego town the team built on a platform.

The robot must first unleash a pretend flood of blocks from a tower called the "tsunami." Then it has to rescue a kitten.

Twelve-year-old Alexis Taylor-Young and 11-year-old Kaylyn Scoskie explained that rescuing a neighboring dog - also on  its to-do list - was proving hard on the dog.

“Basically, we are running over the dog and decapitating the dog. Sorry all you dog fans!” Alexis said. “But then, so it picks up the cat and then it goes into this orange box and if it drops the cat into the orange box and comes back to base, we’re good.”

“Which is what the timer’s for, Kaylyn added, “because we have to run all these missions in under two minutes.

Actually, two and a half.

Robotics coach Emily Jasinski, a first-grade teacher,  gave them the signal to send the robot into the disaster.

"On your mark, get set, go," she announced, setting her stopwatch.

The robot lurched off course and failed to reach the flooded feline.

The girls patiently tried again.

“That’s better,” Alexis pronounced as the robot headed more or less straight for the kitten.

Coach Jasinski says this has been a challenging first year for this female team, one of the few from a cash-strapped rural school. Girls, she says, are often better at following verbal directions than the visual diagrams provided for this contest.

“So, where a lot of teams might have dug right in on the first day and been done, it was like a month and a half just to set up our board,” Jasinksi said.

She says that could be because girls don’t always get Lego toys when they are little.

But the girls say they think some frustrated boys might break robots that don’t perform well, so they are happy with their single-sex team. And Alexis and Kaylyn say this project has taught them a basic truth.

“Nothing is perfect,” Alexis said, as Kaylyn suppressed a giggle.

They’ve also learned that if you don’t give a robot very specific instructions, it will mess up, and you have to go back to the computer drawing board.

At Saturday’s tournament in Northfield, the Royals didn’t make it to the next round.

But they are already planning ahead for next year. In fact, some studies show that while many girls score lower than boys on standardized science tests, they are often better than boys at hands-on projects.  In Vermont, fourth grade girls have, on average, outpaced boys in science on standardized tests, reversing a trend.  They tend to lose ground as they advance through high school.

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