Female engineering students inspire the next generation through FIRST LEGO League

Two sixth-grade girls peer at the computer screen, scrolling up and down looking for clues to help them program their robot. It’s late afternoon at Cypress Grove Intermediate School in College Station, Texas, and the all-girls FIRST LEGO League (FLL) team is gearing up for a competition.

Texas A&M University engineering student and team mentor Miranda Jones leans in and points to the screen. She asks a question to guide them in the right direction. There’s another attempt to get the robot to complete its course, and there’s another failure. About an hour in, the robot does exactly what it’s supposed to do and the girls cheer and high five each other.

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In the long run, that’s what FLL is about — teaching children to think critically and problem solve while simultaneously sparking an interest in engineering concepts.

The Women in Engineering (WE) Program at Texas A&M sponsored three all-girls teams from the Bryan/College Station area this year, providing funding as well as mentorship from female engineering students. The three teams went on to compete in FLL qualifier events in Austin and Waco in December.

WE was established to increase the participation of women in the engineering profession, and director Shawna Fletcher said instilling confidence in young girls is the first step.

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“For girls, confidence precedes interest,” Fletcher said. “Many times, people think that girls naturally shy away from robots. I have found that if you support an all-girl team, they are able to participate in the technical aspects and dig in.”

By designing, building and programming robots, girls learn a wide range of skills that increase their confidence in their abilities.

“Once they experience what FIRST is about and see that they are successful, they get excited and then they are hooked,” Fletcher said.

Engineering student Kellie Meredith volunteered at Bryan’s Sam Rayburn Middle School with the Lady Rebels team.

“Seeing them develop from being hesitant to open the LEGO box and then to know how to put things together, and now they just dive in,” she said, “that progression has been amazing.”

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At Fungineering, engineering student Julia DeVinney said she wouldn’t trade her experience as a mentor for the world.

“I didn’t have this opportunity when I was in middle school,” DeVinney said. “I think it’s cool to get the girls involved now because they can see the passion behind it.”

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Amy Bowman, a teacher who helped organize the team at Sam Rayburn, said it was great watching the girls come together as a team.

“The amazing part about this robotics program is that the girls come from all different backgrounds, economic backgrounds and even different interests and likes, and they’ve come together for a common project,” she said.

Fletcher said FLL is important because it provides an avenue for girls to explore designing, building and programming robots.

“However, FLL is much more than robots,” she said. “Girls gain valuable technical experience working on their robot and mission while completing a comprehensive project, as well as their team core values.”

FLL promotes a non-competitive, sharing and open culture during qualifiers and regional events, she said.

“For girls, it’s essential that they have positive hands-on experiences that build their confidence and interest,” Fletcher said. “This inevitably leads to an interest in and pursuit of engineering careers.

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WE also provides assistance to parents and teachers who would like to become team coaches and mentors. The program is assisting the surrounding community to provide opportunities for people to participate.

Each team received recognition for its success. The Cypress Grove Intermediate School “KABOOM” team advanced to the next round and will be competing again in February.

The “Lady Rebels” of Sam Rayburn Middle School received an honorable mention and the “Gamer Girls” at Fungineering received the “inspiration award” and placed 10th out of 24 teams in robotics challenges.

For more information about the Women in Engineering Program, click here. To learn more about FLL, click here.