CUMMING — A robot at a local elementary school may be named Cookie Monster, but its diet is all blocks. It stacks them, and the four girls behind the controls break out the smiles.
Whitlow Elementary School has three VEX IQ Robotics teams, with four students on each. All three teams went to the state-level competition at Piney Grove Middle School on March 7, but the only all-girl team is moving on to the 2015 VEX Robotics World Championship next month in Kentucky.
“We feel awesome,” said fourth-grader Christine Lee.
Karen Daughtery, an information technology specialist and coach for all three teams, said the girls scored an “excellence” — the highest possible — at both regular season qualifying competitions and at the state competition, where both elementary and middle school teams were in the running.
The robotics competition asks teams to build a robot from a provided starter kit. They have one minute to push cubes from one end of a playing field to the other, gaining extra points if the robot successfully stacks the cubes.
The four team members can explain the robot and its workings in such a coherent and confident way that may not often be associated with fourth and fifth grade.
They had to change the shape of the claw on the forklift. They even keep a notebook of their progress, logging every practice and competition with steps that worked or failed and created a glossary of terms in the back, said fourth-grader Morgan Young.
Robotics teams supplement STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) pathways in schools as a way to engage young students in science- and math-based coursework.
These subjects are being pushed in schools with the thought that they will better prepare students for the job market. If girls ever feel STEM areas are just for boys, they can look to this team.
“We want to be role models for other girls who are not in STEM because they say they can’t do it,” said Anna Yarborough, a fifth-grader, whose twin brother is on one of the other Whitlow robotics teams and whose mother, Melody Yarborough, is also their coach and a paraprofessional at the school.
She said they use all of the STEM classes, including math to measure angles and the field. But they also have to use art to create accurate designs.
In competition, they must complete four challenges. In the Teamwork Challenge, they work with another randomly assigned team toward the goal of stacking the same blocks, earning points together.
The Robot Skills Challenge involves one robot and its driver playing alone against the clock, while the Programming Skills Challenge scores the robot for using sensors to run autonomously.
They also have to complete and present a STEM research project based on a theme. Their research project this year explored biomedical engineering.
Though programming is their hardest area, Yarborough said, they won the research and teamwork challenges.
Izzy Busse, also in fifth grade, said they like to watch other teams’ robots to get ideas and see what may or may not work for their own Cookie Monster.
The four girls are not ones to shy away from talking about their project. When asked what their favorite part was about being on a robotics team, they all answered at once.