The robot "Jack-Jack" built by the Firebirds robotics team at Mount St. Joseph Academy, takes a spin around the Wissahickon Boys and Girls club in Germantown. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

The Firebirds Team 433, an all-girl robotics team from Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown, hosted a summer robotics workshop at the Wissahickon Boys and Girls Club in Germantown on Friday, Aug. 10.

More than 100 youth learned about the mechanics of designing a robot, took turns operating robots “Jack-Jack” and “Shark Byte,” and even built their own “bristle bot” – part toothbrush, part robot.

“As an underrepresented group in science and technology, we are passionate about bringing the message of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math) to other underrepresented communities,” said Margaret Mary Rilling, president of Firebird Robotics.

“As a team, we’re trying to spread the culture of robotics to other people,” said Erin Kelly Tiffany, senior vice president of Firebird Robotics. “So, hopefully, more students in the future will be involved in STEM fields.”

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah said the workshop was the result of a partnership created between First Robotics, which is the premier engineering robotics-training program in the nation, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Fattah was instrumental in bringing the two organizations together.

“We have a critical need to get more young people interested in STEM-related fields – science, technology, engineering and math,” said Fattah, who recently returned from visiting three of NASA’s private contractor-entrepreneurs.

He said in the next 15 years, 25 percent of America’s engineers will retire.

Fattah said the American Innovation and Mentorship Agreement is designed “to change the lives of millions of the nation’s children and, in turn, drive American global scientific leadership.” He added that “4,000 boys and girls clubs across the country are now going to be engaged in robotic training programs and competition.”

“There’s no political speech I am going to give that gets kids interested in building robots,” Fattah said, glancing around the room. “You have to get them engaged in activities. The look on their faces says it all.”

Nate Knauss, a senior mentor at FIRST, said robotics is a great way to reach kids because it is hands-on.

“In Roadrunner, Acme can build an awesome missile and it always does the same thing every time,” said Knauss, who became hooked on robotics as a sophomore in high school after a friend invited him to a FIRST competition. “But, that’s not applicable here. The student actually has to understand how the science works and then they have to figure it out. Reading a textbook or doing the proofs doesn’t inspire them – using it in real life does.”