CITY OF THE SMARTS: The Gear Girls gear up for Saturday competition

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Saturday, November 8, 2014, 10:26 pm
By: 
Rebecca J. McAndrews
Photo courtesy of the Haslett Robotics Club

Saturday is a big day for the “Gear Girls”. This local, all-girl competitive robotics team is geared up to compete November 8 in a Regional Qualifier against 29 other teams for the chance to go on to the state First Lego League competition. 

Led by parent volunteer Christina DeJong, the Gear Girls is one of four teams in the Haslett Robotics Club. The club is comprised of one recreational (non-competitive) team, one co-ed, and an all-boy and all-girl team. The current Gear Girls range in age from 9-12 years, though the team can accept members up to the age of 14. The team is open to students from all school districts. DeJong states, “If we can get kids that want to learn about science and technology, we don’t want to send them away.”

Members of Gear Girls make a commitment to the club in June once school is out, meeting every other week for practice. During summer practices, the students participate in structured, interactive and hands-on small group activities while parent volunteers observe how the students work together. They enjoy hearing from local experts in the field and complete community service projects cleaning up a local park. 

In August, the “mission” is “revealed” to participating teams by the First Lego League (FLL), after which the Gear Girls move to bi-weekly meetings from September through November and participate in two or three competitions throughout the season. DeJong says this year’s FLL theme is “World Class” for which the girls have been researching and creating a technological innovation to facilitate learning. During practices DeJong notes it’s compelling to watch the girls naturally gravitate towards an area of interest like programming, building the robot with Legos, or completing research in a cooperative format. 

When asked what motivates DeJong to volunteer her time with the students, she says a friend of hers whom she barely knew at the time posted in early 2012 that the club was interested in putting together an all-girl team. DeJong’s then 9-year-old daughter agreed to participate along with her son, and DeJong served as a parent helper on another team. DeJong and both kids thoroughly enjoyed their experience and when the club finally had enough girls to create a team (FLL requires a minimum of six) in 2013, she came on as the coach. 

DeJong says opportunities like this were not an option for her when she was growing up. She is thankful for the encouragement she had in the fields of science and mathematics, and cites a particular Calculus teacher who had a significant impact on her. Though she eventually changed her major to Criminal Justice during college, DeJong finds fulfillment in watching the girls mature and grow in confidence in an area that is traditionally dominated by men. “They don’t think of [science] as a career for women. I think working with other girls and women gives them the confidence to pursue it,” says DeJong. She hopes “to get more girls into science and technology fields in the future” through programs like the Robotics Club.   

During their first competition of the 2014 school year, what DeJong describes as a “practice round”, the Gear Girls won trophies for Team Spirit (an award voted on by other teams in the competition) and Gracious Professionalism (one of the FLL core values). As they head into Saturday’s competition, they’re hoping for a repeat of 2013 when they were honored as one of eight teams to move on to State. Community members can follow the girls’ competition through live postings on their Facebook Page .

Disclosure: Rebecca J. McAndrews has two children who attend East Lansing Public Schools and is a substitute teacher for the district.

 

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