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Girl Scouts ditch campfires, 'Kumbaya' for robots

Monday - 5/5/2014, 5:03pm  ET

Robotics.JPG
Troop 5064 competes in robotics in Charles County, Md. The girls are going to California for the next round in the competition. (Courtesy Jen Gerstman)

It's not about winning, it's about their future

WTOP's Rachel Nania reports.

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UPDATE: Friday - 3/28/2014, 4:31 p.m.

The Girl Scout team, the Roving Raptors, earned the Inspire Award at the global competition in Anaheim, Calif.

The award is presented to a team that demonstrates outstanding leadership in embracing the concept of cooperative learning by sharing their ideas with other teams.

In addition to the great honor, the girls also volunteered approximately 70 man hours to support the competition.

EARLIER: Friday - 3/28/2014, 4:31 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON -- Several years ago, Jen Gerstman was introduced to robotics the same way many Washingtonians are introduced to new topics -- on the Metro.

She was taking her daughter to camp at the Smithsonian; when she began talking to a man who was head of the camp's robotics program. At the end of the week, he invited her to stop by to see what robotics is all about.

"And then I was hooked," says Gerstman, who is a mom of three young girls and a Girl Scout troop leader in Charles County, Md. "When he showed it to me and he showed [me] the kids who are doing it, I thought, ‘You know, my girls can do this.'"

She looked into a few robotics programs for her Girl Scouts and started the roughly 10-person member troop on a Lego-based program which taught the girls about building simple machines.

"The robots are pretty cool because you don't think that Girl Scouts do this type of thing. You think about cookies, campfires, camping, but we actually do robotics and I think that's pretty cool," says 10-year-old Rachel Brasch, a member of Gerstman's Girl Scout Troop 5064.

Girl Scout Troop 5064 competes in robotics. (Courtesy Jen Gerstman)

As the girls grew older, they held bake sales, made jewelry and did other odd jobs to raise money to buy more difficult robotics programs.

Now, the troop of fourth- to eighth-grade girls is on a winning streak with their VEX IQ robotics program. In February the girls won the highest award at a regional competition, and in early March they won the state's Excellence Award.

"I knew that we could do well if we worked together and we helped each other, but I had no idea we would ever make it that far," says fifth-grader Brasch.

What does a robotics competition entail? Gerstman says the girls have to start by compiling a research component to show what their robot does and why.

Then they have to design a robot that can maneuver on a 4 x 8 feet playing field, pick up balls and throw them into different areas on the field to score points.

If robotics competitors can hang their robot on a bar in the middle of the field and have it lift up all of its weight, they receive extra points.

Dad Elliot Simmons serves as the troop's robotics coach. He says the best part of the robotics experience is watching the girls tackle complex math and programming challenges.

"The most amazing thing is when you hear an 8-year-old just giving out math equations that you hear a high-schooler give … You really see how bright these kids really are," Simmons says.

"A lot of the equations are really hard and they're in like college level," says daughter Olivia Simmons.

Many of the Girl Scouts contribute their two big wins to hard work and camaraderie.

"Teamwork is always something you have to do. It is very important. You have to get along with the people you are working with," 14-year-old Olivia Simmons says. "When you think about it and you've seen how much we've grown as a team, it was so magnificent."

Now the troop has the opportunity to travel to California for the VEX IQ World Championship and possibly Hawaii this summer for the 2014 Summer Games.

Gerstman is working on a few different fundraising opportunities for the girls, such as a crowd-sourcing project or potential sponsors, so they can pay their way to the competition.

"Cookies aren't going to cut it," she says.

And while winning is sweet, it's not everything to this troop.

"We weren't really expecting to win. We were just expecting to go there and learn some more," says Serheni'te Johnson, who is 13 and in eighth grade. "We can finally say with passion that girls are awesome."

Gerstman says the point of robotics is not necessarily to encourage young girls to go into engineering or mathematics; it's about instilling a sense of confidence so they can do whatever they want.

"What I tried to get them to see is the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is, the more they engage in project-based activities and doing these hands-on STEM things, the more comfortable they are going to get with it," she says.

"Regardless if the girls decide to go into any STEM field or if they want to be a stay-at-home mom, it doesn't matter, but I want them to feel comfortable and empowered to know how to problem solve and how to fix things. And that's what these sorts of activities do."

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Learn more about Girl Scout Troop 5064's journey with robotics and their fundraising efforts for future competitions on their website rovinraptors.weebly.com.

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