Note: This article is contributed by Lynne Dong, a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft as a guest writer with contribution from the following FLL Coaches: Ken Johnston, Leif Kornstaedt, Uma Maheswari Anbazhagan, Ranganath Srikanth, Arlo Siemsen, Ronald Aigner and Sanjeev Dwivedi. These teams are not affiliated with Inner Spark Robotics; however, they make a very strong case for Girls in STEM fields, something that the founders of Inner Spark Robotics firmly stand behind. The date the events refer to are from February 2016.
“We didn’t have to be a boy team to build robots, or get first place. Girls are just as capable as boys. All we needed was spirit, friendship, confidence, and teamwork.” – The Blue Angels
When we help our girls to access technology, amazing things can happen. To realize this, you don’t need to look any further than the Microsoft employees that invest their time to coach girls in the First Lego League. Lynne Dong, a senior Program Manager at Microsoft who started coaching “Blue Angels” two and half years ago, always believed that girls have unlimited potential in technology. She started a Girl Scout team to help girls compete in the First Lego League Robotics tournaments. While some people only associate Girl Scouts with cookies, many Microsoft parents and enthusiasts take proactive steps to provide girls access to robotics and technology. Under Lynne’s guidance and mentoring, the Blue Angels reached the State Finals and received the “Programming Award” at the Western Washington FIRST Lego League Championships on Jan 30th 2016. To put things in context, to progress to the State Finals, the girls had to advance against nearly 500 teams across the western Washington area.
Another Girl Scout team, the Bearded Pineapples, also made it to the State Finals supported by Microsoft coaches Leif Kornstaedt and Ronald Aigner. Arlo Siemsen, himself an FLL alumnus and now a developer on the Windows Engineering System, joined the team as a mentor and provided a new perspective by showing the team some of the tinkering made possible by the Garage. Arlo and Leif came to learn about their joint interest thanks to Microsoft’s FIRST Lego League (FLL) Community, even though they had already been coworkers on the same Microsoft product team. On Halloween 2015, the seventh-grade girls enthusiastically spent their morning on Microsoft campus attending a FLL scrimmage, sharing their robot and project with more than a dozen other Microsoft-coached teams and inspiring each other. After the Bearded Pineapples received the “Gracious Professionalism” award at the Western Washington FLL Championships, the girls immediately started making plans for the next year during their celebratory team dinner.
After hearing a lot of diversity conversations at work, Ranganathan Srikanth & Uma Maheswari Anbazhagan teamed up to form an all-girls team called “Legion of Bot”. The team made it to the semi-finals and won two awards, one for “Gracious Professionalism” and another for “Excellence in Presentation”. Not only did the girls learn about the rigor of engineering (both in software and in hardware), they leveraged as many tools as possible to accomplish their goals. They also met with King County officials to pitch their project and plan to take it further. All five 8th graders on the team decided to apply to a STEM school for their 9th grade, made possible only because the experience left them with positive memories.
Lynne says that the key to making girls successful in STEM is to show girls a way that is accessible to them and help them form a supportive network of other girls in the field. Just as the adage “It takes a village to raise a child” says, it takes effort and support from a lot of people to make such incredible feats possible. Lynne acknowledges the amazing support network and help that other Coaches and mentors at Microsoft provide. In particular, Ken Johnston for his work as the First Lego League Community Lead in the past and Sanjeev Dwivedi, who took over from him and provides help and guidance to new coaches. Their contributions have helped new teams, girls and boys alike, grow through and embrace the experiences of FLL.
We leave you with a few words that the Blue Angels wrote in their team journal, “We didn’t have to be a boy team to build robots, or get first place. Girls are just as capable as boys. All we needed was spirit, friendship, confidence, and teamwork.”