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Girl Scouts work to come in ‘FIRST’ in international robotics challenge

FIRST robotics competition
From left, Katherine Bishop, 14, of Sierra Madre, Isabella Lau, 13 of San Gabriel and Caterina Marchionne, 14 of San Gabriel, look over a robot they will rebuild to do a specific task, during robotics camp at the Girls Scouts of America Montrose office on Saturday, August 1, 2014.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Lisette Jones, 14, remembers who piqued her interest in robots — her next-door neighbor, a teenager, who was on a high school robotics team.

This past weekend, Lisette joined 10 others from the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles for a three-day camp in Montrose centered around robotics.

“I’ve always liked science,” Lisette said. “Since we’re not going to the moon anymore, why not drive robots on Mars? I like robots because they can do just about anything.”

As the years passed, Lisette’s interest never waned as she recently helped her fellow Girl Scouts enhance a group of robots.


Seven members of the council’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Robots team led the camp. The team competes each year in an international robotics challenge sponsored by an organization called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, known as FIRST.

Through robotics, camp members learned about computer programming, designing and engineering. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Robots, made up of girls in eighth through 12th grades, also use the camp to recruit new members for competitions, with this year’s season starting in September.

“It’s a 48-hour immersive experience. We see girls have a good experience,” said Julie Townsend, lead technical mentor for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Robots. “The girls get to get their hands dirty. I love seeing them get interested in this.”

Townsend works for NASA as a robotics engineer, and many of the skills she uses at work were put into practice during the camp.


On Saturday, campers broke up into four teams and were given the task of enhancing already-made robots for Sunday’s friendly competition: moving baskets and balls for points. Campers huddled in their groups — designated by colors purple, orange, yellow and green — and designed an array of robotic arms and scoops for the playing field. Lisette said her team were leaning toward designing a claw.

Allison Ayad, 15 and soon-to-be junior at Arcadia High School, said her favorite part isn’t the competition, but designing the robots through 3D software. Allison will also be the build captain for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Robots this season.

She became interested in robotics in fifth grade. On a whim, she joined the FIRST LEGO League, a robotics program for girls ages 9 to 14.

“It teaches girls they can do things usually stereotyped for men to do. It can be very intimidating to build with the metal and large robots,” said Allison, who now wants to study mechanical engineering. “This helps builds girls’ confidence.”

But the camp aimed to do more than offer Girl Scouts another chance to bond. It allowed young girls the chance to explore the sciences. For the 2010-11 school year, the College Board reported that out of about 3,000 Advanced Placement computer-science exams, only 21% were taken by girls.

Also, the number of women graduating with master’s and doctorate degrees in engineering and computer sciences has remained below 30% since 1991, the National Science Foundation reports.

Allison said she’s hopeful the weekend camp will spark an interest in some of the girls to study science in college.

It did for Lisette, who wants to work for either the Federal Bureau of Investigation or NASA. Lisette also wants to join Culver City High School’s co-ed robotics team, Planet 702.


“This (weekend) solidified me in wanting to do that,” Lisette said. “It’s not just nerdy girls into robots. It’s girls from all walks of life interested in this.”