Girls take passion for robotics to world stage
Team USA gets ready for global competition
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.