‘We find a place for any kid on our team’
Danbury Robotics recruits students typically underrepresented in robotics
When Ellen VanDyke Bell’s robotics teams see their competition struggling, they run to help. That kind of sportsmanship — or “coopertition” and “gracious professionalism” as the robotics league calls it — is instilled in the participants. Judges ask students about the team’s community service and fundraisers, not just their robots.
“A big part of the competition is the collaborative nature,” said Kay Ellen Bell, a 17-year-old senior at Henry Abbott Technical High School who has participated in robotics since fourth grade and captained teams.
Her mom, Ellen VanDyke Bell coaches 10 robotics teams with students in kindergarten through 12th grade from the Danbury area. Her teams have competed at the global level, with one team being named world champions in 2019.
Ellen VanDyke Bell was named coach of the year in New England this year, while her daughter was named among the top 10 robotics players in the world, earning the Dean’s List award named for the league’s founder. Her son was a New England finalist for the award.
She recruits students who are typically underrepresented in robotics, such as girls, minorities and “differently abled” students to give them access to science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
“We find a place for any kid on our team,” said Ellen VanDyke Bell, who is a lawyer.
Danbury Robotics competes in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, program. Teams are divided by age and grade, with oldest teams called FIRST Tech Challenge, for grades seven through 12, and FIRST Robotics Competition, for grades nine through 12.
They have boys, girls and all gender teams. Ellen VanDyke Bell said she started the all-girl team after hearing a boy say that girls couldn’t do robotics.
“It’s a way to empower girls,” she said. She started coaching in 2011 after her son said he wanted to be homeschooled. She took him to a robotics event in Wolcott, saw his excitement and decided to create a local program. Her son is now 19 and attends Worcester Polytechnic Institute, studying mechanical engineering. He mentors the team.
In addition to Ellen VanDyke Bell, there’s adult assistant coaches and various adult mentors, but students hold various leadership roles in safety, business, engineering, marketing, community service and outreach, and strategic advancement and recruitment. Older students mentor younger students.
“I really try to have the kids run the team,” she said.
Prior to COVID-19, the team partnered with Danbury Library to offer a free robotics summer camp for kids. In 2019, 115 children participated.
The teams’ sponsors include Sikorsky, NASA and ENS Microwave, which allows them to use its building on Commerce Drive in Danbury. Before COVID-19, they met at Brookfield High School.
The goal is to not charge students. However, equipment, travel and registration fees — $5,000 for one of the teams — make the program expensive, so the students often hold fundraisers. They need about $100,000 for the highest-level team if they make it to the world championships.
“With this particular competition the budget is really insane, but it’s real-life experience for these kids,” Ellen VanDyke Bell said.
Her daughter said she has learned public speaking, confidence, how to conduct herself at a competition and how to remain calm under pressure.
Ellen VanDyke Bell hopes to raise money to purchase a Glowforge laser printer and Ultimaker 3D Printer so they could make parts for the robots. With that equipment, she envisions creating prosthetic arms and hands for children through the e-NABLE online movement.
COVID prevented Ellen VanDyke Bell from offering teams for younger grades this year because children under 12 couldn’t be vaccinated until recently.
But the FIRST Robotics Competition team, abbreviated FRC, plans to get started on a new robot as soon as the latest challenge is released worldwide on Jan. 8. The FIRST Tech Challenge’s task was released in September, so the goal is to get a robot together quickly before competition begins in January and February. They compete in Connecticut due to COVID.
Strategy comes first, then building and programming. Adjustments may be made between competitions.
“Brainstorming never ends,” Kay Ellen Bell said.
Students work together to build robots and then participate in three-day long competitions where their device is put in a “field” with other teams’ robots for 2 1/2 minutes. The teams are split into two groups and earn points based on the particular challenge.
The Danbury mascot is the goat, and their motto is “strive to be the G.O.A.T.” or greatest of all time.
At competitions, the team has a “safety board” to keep track of where everyone is. They designate a place for students to go for mental health breaks if needed.
“We became a big family, and we all care about each other,” Ellen VanDyke Bell said.
The Danbury FRC team won world championships and “rookie of the year” with its robot, Little Mac, named after the boxer from a Nintendo video game, that has green boxing gloves and green wheels.
Since it was their rookie year, the students created a smaller, but more agile robot, Kay Ellen Bell said.
“Our main strategy was OK, you know what let's try to make a functioning robot that at least works,” she said. “That’s why it’s small and fast.”
Kay Ellen Bell recalled her fourth-grade classmates once didn’t believe that she and another girl advanced to the state robotics competition. They brought their robot into class, and she said she saw their eyes light up.
“Kay has been very instrumental at being a role model for other young women in STEM,” her mother said.
Ellen VanDyke Bell, who is Black, said her son was once told by another Black student that Black people play basketball and football, not robotics. Her answer was “we can do that, too.”
“We’re trying to change that perception,” she said.