By: Monica Cai
Photo courtesy of Callista Jerman
Students are annually alerted to the beginning of the robotics competition season by the brightly-colored hair commonly spotted around campus. While the most obvious shade is “Vampire Red”, the color of the Gunn Robotics Team, another hue has begun popping up as well. The cerulean blue hair tips seen on the occasional girl represent her dedication to Space Cookies, a Silicon Valley robotics team that works in partnership with the Girl Scouts of Northern California and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center. The all-girls group consists of 37 girls from 10 different schools in California, primarily those in the Bay Area. “The main goal of our team is to inspire youth to follow careers in technology,” junior Cara Lai said. “Because we’re an all-female team, we’re especially reaching out to females.” The team is led by its troop leader, Ann Wettersten, who has a background in mechanical engineering. “I mostly help with providing the girls the materials tools and information that they need to be successful,” Wettersten said. “They take it from there.”
During the off-season, Space Cookies often attend Girl Scouts events where they demonstrate the skills of their robots and also participate in Girls Exploring Tomorrow’s Technology (GETT), a program for young girls to learn about what the National Science Foundations calls Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers. Earlier in the year, the Space Cookies also worked with the Golden Surfers, a robotics team of the East Palo Alto Charter School. A team of mostly elementary school boys, the Golden Surfers participated in For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) LEGO League competitions, working for several months with the help of the Space Cookies.
However, from the beginning of January to the end of April, the Space Cookies are busy developing and building a robot that can get them to the FIRST Championship, the final stage of the FIRST Robotics Competitions. The team works at the NASA Ames Research Center located near Moffett Field alongside Bellarmine College Preparatory’s robotics team, with whom they share resources and collaborate. “However, in the end each team’s design decision is its own,” Lai said. “We each make our own individual robot.” During building season, the girls are in the lab everyday for hours. “Working with a small group of girls is great and different,” senior Christina Wettersten said. “With Space Cookies everyone gets a chance to work on almost everything.” According to Christina Wettersten, Space Cookies are also unique in that they don’t represent a school. “If we were a school team, you would usually see your friends on campus,” she said. “For us, some drive about an hour to come to the NASA Lab, so we have to work hard in communicating and keeping everyone together as a team, which can sometimes be a challenge.”
The girls are joined in the lab by mentors, guiding figures every robotics team can have. “The degrees a mentor is involved varies from team to team,” Lai said. “We’re lucky to have mentors from NASA.” For the season, NASA hires one mentor and one college student to help the team, and Space Cookies also receive mentors from BAE Systems and other engineering companies. “They help us with the design process by throwing in ideas and introducing us to concepts,” Christina Wettersten said. “The girls are still the ones who really think about it and come to a decision.” According to Christina Wettersten, the mentors are also needed for the safety measures NASA enforces in the lab. Before the season starts, the mentors teach all of the girls safe lab procedures, and, later on, operate certain machinery the girls aren’t allowed to use. [pullquote]The cerulean blue hair tips seen on the occasional girl represent her dedication to Space Cookies.[/pullquote]
The process of building a robot is a long and arduous one and begins early in the year with simple discussion. “The first thing is to develop a strategy,” Lai said. “We talk about how we want to play the game and the best way to play the game.” According to Christina Wettersten, anyone is invited to come by and share an idea, no matter how ridiculous or crazy. The girls then sort through the ideas and narrow them to two or three designs. After finally making a decision, the girls being prototyping, or testing out their design. The team does most of its work using SolidWorks, a mechanical computer-aided design program. “I like to design everything in 2-dimensions with SolidWorks first,” Lai said. “It’s a really easy way to test out an idea without actually building it.” The team usually runs through several prototypes before deciding on a final design.
Space Cookies are financially backed by Girl Scouts of the USA and NASA. Although the Girl Scouts aren’t allowed to fund the team directly, being backed by the organization attracts many sponsors for Space Cookies. Organizations like St. Jude’s Medical Foundation and companies like BAE Systems offer monetary support, while businesses like Royal Metal Finishing offer services that include welding and powder coating, both of which are essential to the construction of the team’s robot. The team also holds various fundraising events, such as its annual troop garage sale and Girl Scout cookie sales.
Every member of the team is required to attend two fundraising events as well as put in 100 hours at the lab in order to be on the travel team. The girls usually attend two traveling regional competitions, both of which they performed extremely well at. At the Davis Regional, the team won the entire competition and picked up an Engineering Inspiration Award. Later on, at the Silicon Valley Regional, the team ended up as finalists and won the Innovations and Controls Award for the autonomous programming of their robot. The win at Davis qualified Space Cookies for the FIRST championship in the summer. “We haven’t not gone to Championships yet, but I’m sure the year will come when we don’t,” Christina Wettersten said. “However, our team isn’t focused on ‘Oh, we need to win.’ We just want to build a robot and learn something from it.”
The positive attitude the girls apply to competition can be seen in the team’s interaction with GRT. This year, eight girls chose to join the Space Cookies instead of GRT. However, according to Christina Wettersten, having two teams in one school isn’t as troublesome as it may seem. “It’s really not a huge issue,” Christina Wettersten said. “We want to be friends with all the robotic teams, including GRT. It’s all about the people you get to know that make this fun.”
The girls prefers keeping Gunn and the team separate. “At the end of the day, I still go to Gunn and nobody wants to see their own school do badly,” Lai said. “When I’m at competition, I want Gunn to do just as well as we do.”