Girls have fun and learn science at robotics camp

The Girls Inc. of Pinellas weeklong camp could be the pioneer program of science and engineering camps for girls nationwide.

Published July 25, 2004

PINELLAS PARK - Kirstie Lishefski knelt down and placed her project on the wooden floor. She stood up, stepped back and moved the remote control's small lever forward.

"Come on, Shnogums!" said the 12-year-old, her eyes tracing a path on the floor.

The small robot buzzed across the room and bumped into a barricade of flip flops and painted toenails - an obstacle of girls' feet it couldn't pass. Thwarted, it wheeled around. Then it faced Henry.

After a brief metal-to-metal confrontation, Shnogums and Henry went their separate ways: Shnogums over the ramp and Henry across the floor.

Kirstie worked on Shnogums' construction for two days - tinkering and rebuilding.

She and 15 other girls built robots during a weeklong robotics technology camp held at Girls Inc. of Pinellas. The program highlighted the importance of science and math, two subjects known to attract more boys than girls.

This is why Paul Wahnish, a local high school engineering and social studies teacher, decided to create a robotics camp just for girls. Wahnish also runs First Step Robotics, a local robotics company and leads East Lake High School's robotics team.

"When girls are in a mixed environment with boys, the boys tend to try and dominate the situation and girls want to be friendly with everyone," Wahnish said. "Watching how they work together but develop their own ideas is something really special."

During the camp's first two days, the girls, ages 11 to 15, learned principles of acceleration, gravity, momentum and other basic engineering lessons.

Then they took apart the radio-controlled metal car kits to study the parts and learn how to reuse them to create a three-wheeled robot. Wahnish and the camp's instructors described what the robot should do in the end, but left the rest up to the girls.

"They were a little freaked out when we told them they'd be working on the robots independently," said Wahnish, who also coaches the cross country and girls basketball teams at East Lake High. "But in creating their own robots, they shared ideas and collaborated, which is something most boys wouldn't do. Boys don't want anyone copying."

The radio-controlled robots started as mere nuts, bolts, wires and metal pieces from the kits. Three days later, after the lessons and hands-on building experience, Shnogums and the other robots were ready to roll.

Though the girls shared ideas, no two robots were identical. Some had larger frames. Others had longer metal arms. A few had blue coloring. Some had sticker eyes. Some, like Shnogums, had abstract names. Others, like Henry, more human-like.

"It was just a cute name," said 11-year-old Nicole Lytwin, Henry's creator. "Sometimes it was frustrating building Henry because things wouldn't work right. But the instructors helped out a lot."

Wahnish has conducted several robotics camps, but this was the first with only girls. With First Step Robotics, he is working in conjunction with FIRST, a New Hampshire science and technology company hoping to launch the girls-only camp nationwide. Since the program is so new, Wahnish invited Yvonne Clearwater, a robotics education project manager from NASA, to oversee the program.

"The key here is to get the girls turned on to math and science early on and enjoy technology as an application," said Clearwater, who traveled from NASA's research center in California. "Programs like this are on the right track because they capture the girls' imagination and they learn so much."

To help, Wahnish recruited two former members of his robotics team to instruct the camp: Stephanie Sims, 20, and her brother Alex, 18.

Stephanie, now a University of Florida junior, is studying to be a biomedical engineer. The brother-sister team not only taught the girls how to build the robots, but also helped fix faulty wiring, pesky gear boxes and broken axles.

"It's great to see them having fun with this," Stephanie said. "Most never would have thought to take a car apart or build a robot, but now they know how both work - inside and out."

She enjoyed serving as a role model for the girls.

"There are so many opportunities in engineering, you don't have to go the standard mechanical engineering route," Stephanie said. "From the cars we drive, the watches we wear and even cosmetics - everything has to be engineered. There are so many options within this field."

- Maura Halpern can be reached at 727 892-2271 or mhalpern@sptimes.com