Taylor Reyes thinks she might work for NASA someday. Or maybe, since she really likes geometry, she’ll become an architect — using computers to compose beautiful, intricate digital blueprints.
No matter what this Foothills Middle School eighth grader chooses to do when she grows up, Taylor knows she’s already on the right path toward achieving her goals.
She is a member of the Foothills Robotics Program, and together with four of her classmates — Miranda Nayak, Asanatou Ceesay, Lucia Musacchi and Annaliese Gordon — they are winning accolades for achievement in science and technology.
In February, this all-girls robotics team, called Team FBI (Female Bot Intelligence), took home top honors at the Washington state robotics competition. In May, they participated in a world championship, where they competed against 400 teams and received an award for STEM research. And just last week, the girls were named Future Tech Leaders of the Year by the Greater Wenatchee Area Technology Alliance.
Team FBI’s coach, Brigitte Wiegand, has been recognized as well. GWATA named her STEM Educator of the Year, and she was inducted into the STEM Hall of Fame at the world competition last spring. It’s easy to see why.
Every one of her Foothills teams went to state last year, four of them went to the world competition, and two of those teams won awards there.
“All of those things are fantastic but they’re just bonuses,” Brigitte said. “The thing that I’m most proud of is how many kids we’ve reached through our program, how much our program has grown, and how much exposure we have given these kids.”
Brigitte learned about the FMS Robotics Program three years ago, when her youngest daughter was a participant. Back then, the future of robotics at Foothills was uncertain. The program’s grant funding was ending and Brigitte was told it would have to shut down unless someone stepped up to coach the kids. So that’s what she did.
“I learned that entire first year along with the kids,” she said. The next year, Brigitte asked Foothills technology teacher Aaron Hansen to help coordinate the program. He was immediately and enthusiastically on board.
“It became so clear watching the kids during practice that this program is changing lives in a profound way that, in 20 years of working with students, I have not seen from any other program or activity,” Aaron said.
He credits Brigitte with saving robotics at Foothills and building it into the world-class program it is today.
“Had she not stepped in when she did, the program would have died,” Aaron said. “Two years ago, we were at 30 kids and then last year we exploded.” Why? “Because we intentionally recruited girls.”
“I was incredibly intentional about going to our science, math and technology teachers,” Brigitte explained, “and I said, ‘Give me your sixth and seventh grade girls that show potential in these fields. Who would excel? Who needs this?’ ”
Now about 85 students participate in the program, and nearly half are girls.
Over the course of the school year, students learn how to design, build and operate robots. They work in teams, learning to collaborate, manage their time, speak in public and conduct scientific research. They learn how to fail, then get back to work. Again and again.
Aaron and Brigitte pulled the test scores of all the kids who participated in the program last year and said the picture is clear: Every student who participated saw huge growth academically.
We have all heard the dismal statistics about the number of women pursuing STEM careers. We know that technology, especially, remains a male-dominated industry. Just 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female. Just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women.
Displayed high on one wall in the classroom where the robotics program meets is a quote by Malala Yousafzai: “Every girl deserves to take part in creating the technology that will change our world and change who runs it.”
Here in Wenatchee, Brigitte and Aaron are doing the work of empowering tech-minded girls, and they are doing it without pay. While there is a chance that future funding may include stipends for their time, so far Brigitte and Aaron have been leading the robotics program as volunteers, putting in at least two hours with the students two or three days each week, plus traveling to competitions. Such dedication to other people’s children is inspiring. It is worthy of praise. And it seems worthy of the community’s support.
Last year, the FMS Robotics Program, which is offered to students at no charge, cost about $60,000 to run. Because the program continues to grow in popularity, Aaron expects that number to be closer to $72,000 this year. The school district kicked in $4,000 last year. The rest of the money comes from donations, grants and fundraising. If you would like to donate to the program, contact Aaron at 664-8961 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To watch a video about Team FBI that GWATA produced, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftyeJmXHWf8&list=PLhPuPHjo3IhWu3gxpVdQ3KeaA00eali6l
To watch GWATA’s video about Brigitte, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBJDa2tXY74&list=PLhPuPHjo3IhWu3gxpVdQ3KeaA00eali6l&index=5
This post originally appeared in The Wenatchee World.