Girls take pas­sion for ro­bot­ics to world stage

Team USA gets ready for global com­pe­ti­tion

Albuquerque Journal - - NATION & WORLD - BY MAIA SILBER

WASH­ING­TON - Colleen John­son built her first ro­bot at age 2, sit­ting on her fa­ther’s lap. It was a “sumo” ro­bot, de­signed to knock other au­toma­tons down. And it played the tune “Twin­kle, Twin­kle Lit­tle Star.” You know, child’s play. John­son’s younger sis­ter, Katie, was not far be­hind. She soon made her own an­droid, just “a tiny lit­tle thing that moved.” The John­son sis­ters, now 16 and 18, have been hooked ever since.

Now the John­sons, along with their co-cap­tain San­jna Ravichan­dar, 17, make up Team USA for the inau­gu­ral FIRST Global Ro­bot­ics Chal­lenge, whose two days of game play take place Mon­day and Tues­day in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

The three girls have spent the past sev­eral months not only build­ing their own ro­bot, but con­tact­ing teams from around the world to of­fer their as­sis­tance with ev­ery­thing from tech­ni­cal trou­bleshoot­ing to deal­ing with the heat of a Wash­ing­ton sum­mer.

“We feel like as the host coun­try, it’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity to make it a good ex­pe­ri­ence for ev­ery­one,” Ravichan­dar said at a hec­tic all-team prac­tice ses­sion Satur­day. She had just of­fered ad­vice to some mem­bers of Team Botswana, whose ro­bot had not ar­rived at the air­port.

The com­pe­ti­tion, de­signed to pro­mote Sci­ence, Tech­nol­ogy, En­gi­neer­ing and Math­e­mat­ics (STEM) around the world, will in­clude a team from Afghanistan, which had ini­tially been de­nied U.S. visas.

Other chil­dren play with dolls and toy cars. The John­sons grew up tin­ker­ing with parts of old sewing ma­chines and lawn mow­ers, which their par­ents, both trained as en­gi­neers, picked up from scrap yards in their home town of Fair­banks, Alaska.

In the early 2000s, their par­ents, Tom and Sharon, be­gan work­ing as coaches, judges, and ref­er­ees for FIRST (For In­spi­ra­tion and Recog­ni­tion of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy), a not-for-profit youth or­ga­ni­za­tion that runs ro­bot­ics com­pe­ti­tions for stu­dents. Al­most as soon as the girls were old enough to com­pete, they be­gan par­tic­i­pat­ing in FIRST’s Lego and tech chal­lenges.

Their team, Schrodinger’s Hat, formed with four other Fair­banks stu­dents, has par­tic­i­pated in more than 20 com­pe­ti­tions. (Its name comes from Er­win Schrodinger’s fa­mous thought ex­per­i­ment: The team com­petes wear­ing gi­ant top hats dec­o­rated with cat’s eyes).


Mem­bers of Team USA work to ad­dress some last-minute tech­ni­cal is­sues with their ro­bot dur­ing a prac­tice round for the inau­gu­ral FIRST Global Ro­bot­ics Chal­lenge.

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