All-girls robotics team prepares for international competition

By Erich Wagner (Courtesy photo)

For a group of girls in the Port City, Legos aren’t just for building pirate ships or a replica of the Millennium Falcon.

Six girls hailing from several middle schools — public and private — use the building-block toys in robotics competitions, developing solutions to real world problems as well as practical skills for later in life.

In December, the Dynamite Twisters won a state tournament with a robot designed to protect homes and residents from dangerous tree branches at risk of falling during a storm. Next month, the team will trek to Toronto for the international competition, where they will vie with more than 70 other groups of youngsters around the world for the top prize.

Abigail Henshaw, a sixth grader at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, said the group uses the Lego Mindstorms set and software to build and program robots. The activity reinforces principles of science and math, from coding and engineering to geometry and problem solving.

“For me, the most exhilarating experience is when you finally make that one little change to your program that perfects it,” Henshaw said. “You just feel so amazing, because you work so hard for it and when it works, you’re so happy.”

The team also features students from George Washington Middle School and Burgundy Farm Country Day School.

In addition to the actual robotics section of the competition, the girls had to complete a research section of the project. They spoke with local arborists and developed a smartphone app, Treesurance, which presents users with a series of questions about a tree on their property to determine whether a branch is at risk of falling on their home or vehicle during a hurricane.

“It’s an app for homeowners who don’t really have the time or the money to contact a professional arborist but are concerned about their trees,” said Jessica Lopez, a St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes sixth grader. “So it’s a free app for Android phones that consists of 25 easy yes-or-no questions that you don’t need an arborist to answer. It gives you a risk rating and a recommendation regarding what to do with that tree to prepare for an upcoming storm.”

Despite their strong performance in the state competition, the team isn’t sitting on its laurels. The girls have been working tirelessly since December to improve their robotics performance as well as the Treesurance app.

“To prepare for this upcoming competition, we’ve been perfecting our robot, adding a few more elements that make it much more reliable, and we’ve got Treesurance 2.0 now,” Abigail said. “Also, what we were doing is we were perfecting how to work together as a team, to make us one cohesive group even more than we already are.”

Ann Henshaw, Abigail’s mother and one of the team organizers, said competitions like this are great for reinforcing math and science concepts learned in the classroom.

“It’s very hands-on, so the kids aren’t just sitting reading a book, although they might do some research on the Internet,” she said. “It’s very ‘touch it, feel it.’ The kids learn a little bit about themselves, and they learn about the world around them, how to participate in a team and their own strengths and weaknesses.”

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