Mount Si Workshop Gives Girls a Taste of Science Careers

This article was originally featured in the Snoqualmie Valley Reporter

The relaxed atmosphere of Mount Si High School in the middle of summer vacation affected almost everything. Shorts and flip-flops were the dress code, a dog was a regular participant in a week-long workshop, and students, already calling teachers Kyle Warren and Tracy Roberts by their first names, opted for the window shortcut instead of walking all the way around to the courtyard door to test their creations.

It didn’t quite relax everything, though. The drive to learn and succeed was as strong as it ever is in the building, during the Bots on the Sound robotics camp for girls, July 23 to 27, 2012.

Outside, Mount Si sophomore Hailey Modzelewski and Seattle-area junior Zenia Pakker huddle over their team’s robot as they debate how to give it neutral buoyancy, neither floating nor sinking, to complete a task. Inside, Renee Spear, also a Mount Si sophomore, designs propulsion improvements on her teams’ robot, while a mildly disgruntled Hannah Baker of Federal Way, banned from doing more than 10 percent of the construction so she can develop her software skills, rummages through the equipment kits for a part.

Teammate Jessi Lelas did take a few seconds to experiment with robotic claw-hands as a hair clip, naturally, but then she was back to business, experimenting with assemblies that would enable her team’s robot to pick a wiffle ball up from the bottom of the children’s pool outside in the courtyard.

“I’m going to put some of my own ideas into this now,” she says, and a few minutes later “I think that actually might work!”

The Mount Si freshman is talking mainly to herself, but several people are listening, including members of the group that brought the workshop to the Valley. Laura Enman, coordinator of Project Splash of the National Girls Collaborative Project, which secured the National Science Foundation grant for the program, tells Warren confidently, “Jessi’s got this.”

Warren is not at all surprised. He’s been working with the five girls for nearly four full days, as they designed, built, and tested their robotic creations to complete various tasks on the water. He’s almost as excited as his students, especially about the possibilities they’re exposed to from the guest speakers who’ve stopped in throughout the week.

This workshop, he says, is really intended to teach girls, “Pursue your passion, pursue your interests, and great things will happen.”

As for the great things the girls are already creating, he’s very happy not just with the robots, but with the problem-solving skills the girls are discovering in themselves.

“They’re actually going really fast, picking up things very quickly… working very well together as a team,” he said. “Just yesterday, we decided to divide them up into different teams.”

A team is two or three people, working on a robot to complete each of the four tasks in the weeklong robotics camp. Ideally, the team would be two people, says Spear, because the tasks are easily divided that way. For example, she says, one person designs while the other assembles. They both test, launching their robots into the children’s pool outside, under the supervision of Roberts or Warren, who power the robots by holding a battery taped to a yardstick over the robot’s magnetic sensor.

Spear’s work preference seems to be the design end, and she intently studies the system diagram of the robot, deciding where to add the sensors needed to pick up the ball for the final challenge.

There’s no question she’ll be doing more robotics work come this fall, she says, plus honors math class. “I’ve been interested in it for like four years,” she said. “I was so excited to take this (camp), I was like ‘I can’t wait for this week to come!’”

As for the rest of the summer, “I have no idea.”