The Lightning Ladies are ready to change the notion that robotics competitions are a boys world.
The Bellevue team was one of only two all-girls robotics teams to compete in last month’s First Lego League qualifying tournament in Nebraska City where it qualified for the Robotics State Championship Feb. 20 at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum in Ashland.
The team consists of six girls between the ages of 8 and 10, five of whom attend Fort Crook Elementary School.
Competitions require teams to design robots using Lego parts and program their robot to do various tasks, such as pick up objects and drop them off in different areas. This year, the tasks all have an environmental theme, such as transporting recyclables.
Coach Heather Barnes decided to start the team because her oldest daughter, McKenzie Brannon, was on an all-boys team last year, and Barnes realized there were not many girls involved in robotics. So she and her husband decided to start an all-girls robotics team for their three daughters and several of their daughters’ friends.
Other team members are Madison Riggs, Genevieve Barnes, Pressly Schoenherr, Quinn Haselden and Tauren Woodward. The Barnes’ youngest daughter, Isabella, does not compete, and is considered the team mascot.
The Lightning Ladies started practicing in August 2015. Although Barnes and her husband Christopher are engineers, they had little experience with robotics. Other than McKenzie, none of the other girls had been involved in robotics, either.
Each move the robot made needed to be programmed, so before the robot was built, the girls practiced by telling Barnes where to walk and what to pick up, step-by-step.
“Our first event ever, I basically pretended to be a robot and they told me where to go,” Barnes said.
The Lightning Ladies have learned a lot since they became a team, both about robotics and programming as well as working as a team.
“I really think the most important skill that they’ve learned is basically communication and teamwork,” Barnes said.
Barnes hopes involvement in activities like this will lead more girls towards careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
“There’s such a huge gender gap in STEM career fields, and this is our tiny contribution towards it,” Barnes said.
Each member of the Lightning Ladies is involved with both the programming and building, and all decisions are voted on as a team.
The girls like different things about being involved in robotics, from the programming to the juice and snacks they get at every practice.
“Our favorite part is that we have a friendly coach, we have a lot of fun with our teammates, and we have fun programming,” McKenzie said.
Barnes has been surprised at how well the team has done in their first year of competing.
“I’m absolutely amazed by these girls that they made it to state,” Barnes said. “The girls really pulled it all together, they helped each other with programming and they helped each other build.”