If you are not familiar with the phrase, “FIRST Like a Girl” let us introduce you to the Techno Tigresses.
This group of middle-school girls from Clayton, N.C. competes in FIRST Lego League robotics, the world’s largest STEM-based competition for grades K-8th. As the first, and only all-girl team in their county, they had a successful rookie year in 2019-2020 winning awards at both the regional and state level. As the 2020-2021 season started and the pandemic continued the team wasn’t sure how the upcoming season would unfold, especially with their state seeing team registrations drop by nearly two-thirds. This community-based team wasn’t ready to give up though and ended up as the only team left standing in their county. With help from TechGirlz the team embraced the competition’s core values of discovery and innovation, threw in a lot of personal perseverance, and continued with a season that was completely different from years past.
“Competitions went from being loud, large, in-person events to being virtual this year,” said Shannon Mann, team coach. “Last year the team was always on-the-go, in their community meeting people and working with experts to learn about robotics and STEM. This season became a lot harder in so many ways.”
Mann explained that in addition to building/coding Lego robots, a large part of the FIRST competition involves an innovative project that requires teams to do research and meet with people working in that particular field to help the team develop a creative solution to a real-world problem.
“My team always met with experts in-person. They loved meeting many women in STEM and doing hands-on activities with them to understand their jobs or their own project better,” Mann said. With pandemic guidelines the team was only able to do one in-person field trip this season, so they had to develop a new plan for finding and meeting experts to help them with their ideas.
Being near the Raleigh area, the team learned of TechGirlz in early 2020, but there weren’t many in-person classes offered in the area. Mann’s daughter registered for one in March, but it was cancelled. Mann said she didn’t think any more about it till she received an email in July from TechGirlz.org mentioning their online offerings. “I opened the email and saw everything that TechGirlz was now offering virtually and thought it was amazing,” Mann said. “I saw a way to not only salvage our robotics season, but to keep my team heavily engaged in STEM; learning and growing on a weekly basis.”
In summer 2020, Mann’s daughter, Sloan, registered for the Digital Designer class. She has since taken more than 20 TechGirlz classes, as well as participated in a few STEM talks and competitions. Coach Mann realized that many of the classes offered could directly benefit her team as they developed their innovative project solution and prepared a prototype for judging.
Team members took classes in artificial intelligence, Web design, smart apps, photography, creating infographics, and making video games. Their project centered on getting teenagers to move more in their community, and their solution was to create an app-based game with an educational twist to encourage teenagers to get out to their local parks and forests.
“One topic that I and my team participated in and stood out to me was game design,” said Sydney Matisoff, an 8th grader and innovation project lead for the team. “Not only is this something not offered in school, but it is something most girls would want to do, but do not have the option to do without programs like TechGirlz.”
TechGirlz not only helped the team understand and build the technology behind their project through virtual classes, but they also introduced them to experts in their project field so that they could share their idea in order to improve upon it.
Dr. Thomas Proffen, founder of ORCSGirls, a tech partner with TechGirlz, met with the team in October to expand on their knowledge of app design and machine learning. In November, Mark Philipp, a game designer for the University of California’s Brain Game Center offered advice on game design in an educational context; and in early December, Ria Singh, an 11th grade TechGirlz teen advisor, offered her insight on robotics and computer science in sports.
“It meant a lot for them to take so much time with us,” said Sloan Mann, a 7th grader and lead builder for the Techno Tigresses. “I learned stuff that not only helped our project, but also about their jobs and how they got to be where they are today.”
The team competed in their regional competition in mid-December placing 4th in robot runs and 5th overall in the competition. Unfortunately for the girls only the top four teams advanced to state competition, but the experience of continuing in a difficult year still had its rewards.
“I’m moving up to the high school level team next year as an 8th grader,” said Sloan. “I think everything that the TechShopz have taught me will help me do a lot for the team. I want to be a TechGirlz teen advisor one day and maybe lead a TechShop. Helping other middle school girls learn what I have learned is important. This stuff is so much fun and more girls should know about it.”
“TechGirlz and FIRST are important programs to get girls involved in STEM subjects,” said Nolte. “Normally there aren’t many opportunities available.”
Coach Mann said that even though the season was not what they had hoped for, TechGirlz offered a silver lining and gave her team more confidence to pursue the next level of robotics.
“TechGirlz shifted quickly to a virtual learning environment and in doing so delivered outstanding content to a larger audience,” said Mann. “Their network of educators and experts is exactly what is needed to ensure girls continue to pursue STEM. I’m very thankful to everyone involved.”