The little robot whirrs indecisively, making tiny side-to-side jerking motions as its programmers look on nervously. It got “stage fright” like this on Feb. 7, at the Trash Trek NC FIRST LEGO League (FLL) State Championship, which nearly derailed its programmers’ hopes – nearly, as they ended up taking first place. A week later in a Cary subdivision, it’s doing the same thing. The Robo Whisperers, the team of middle and high school girls who built this robot and named it the Beast, give it a once-over and another chance. This time, it does what it’s supposed to.
It’s like a teenager, they joke, listing off its qualities in a chorus: it’s moody, shy, and unpredictable. “Us!” Zaineb Abdeally says emphatically, indicating her five teammates.
Yet as the Beast’s young programmers talk, it quickly becomes evident that they know exactly why it does what it does – and they don’t need personification or metaphor to explain that the Lego robot, which uses a visual sensor to navigate its surroundings, simply responds differently to differently lit rooms.
In late April, the Robo Whisperers take the Beast to St Louis to compete in the 2016 FLL Championship: 7th graders Amelia Lobo and Sriya Mantena, 8th graders Ayesha Darekar and Somya Pandey, and 9th graders Vidisha Purandare and Zaineb Abdeally will represent North Carolina against national and international robotics teams. Until then, they’ll be tweaking the code that drives the Beast, dressed in their team uniforms: matching pink shirts and blinking sequin fedoras.
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“Robotics is not just about building a robot,” says Raju Mantena, Sriya’s dad and husband to Robo Whisperers coach Gouri Mantena. “It has multiple aspects.”
There’s outreach: the girls speak to younger children, as young as kindergarten, and show them how the robot works. There’s the project – the girls designed a pizza box with a removable liner, making the box recyclable – and, finally, the robot itself.
“This year’s theme is Trash Trek, all about recycling and the environment,” Sriya says. “Every single mission is somehow related to Trash Trek, and you have these specified Lego pieces that you are only allowed to use to create robots.”
There’s a tabletop mat that every FLL team uses, with different regions representing different challenges. The Beast follows a thick black line down the middle, passing a Lego sea turtle and approaching a miniature junk car. Here is a choice: to crush the car or refurbish it. The robot does the latter, dropping a new “engine” in before releasing the car and backing away.
They watch, pleased but analytical, as it succeeds. These girls are transitioning into high school ages, Amelia’s mother Aparna Rane says, and robotics has given them focus as they grow.
“Your interests change,” Rane says. “If you have something you’re passionate about, which I think these girls have found, that keeps you going and hopefully you carry it on to high school and college.”
When Vidisha moved to the area two years ago, she knew very little about robotics, but encountered clubs and camps right away. “Amelia’s dad was talking to us and he said these girls are making a robotics team in the community, and would you be interested in joining?” she says. Some girls knew more than others, but they worked together, they learned together, and today they have an award-winning project and an upcoming trip to St Louis to show for it.