Although the Aquabots of VEX Team 1845A, an all-girl independent Lamar County robotics team, have won their fair share of trophies and tournaments over the years, their message is less about that and more about Girl Power – the idea of how girls use their brains to break down stereotypes and gender roles by accomplishing big endeavors.
So far, the team – made up of middle-schoolers Mica Shemper, Madelyn Courtney, Elliot Walsh and Ella Grace Parish – have done just that, in part with endeavors like working with dolphins at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport and winning a worldwide Google online challenge for writing a book about Girl Power in the STEM field.
“Two of the four girls so far … want to be engineers, so this just paves the road to their future,” team coach Michelle Courtney said. “So they’re just very impressive girls and they’re hard-working, and they give up so much of their free time for STEM education.
“They’re just very smart, confident girls, and I think robotics and STEM have made them into who they are now, because when they first started out they were not very-well spoken and afraid of public speaking. So they’ve come a long way, and I’m just impressed with Mississippi’s robotics, because we’re always last in the nation for everything, but we actually have some highly competitive teams in the area, and these kids are competing in global events.”
For their trip to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies last year, the girls decided to create a playground and enrichment toys for rescued dolphins to keep the animals active during the rehabilitation process. The toys were made of recycled rings from last year’s “Ringmaster” activity, as well as parts from past projects they had in their garages.
“We found that they fit perfectly around a pool noodle, and a pool noodle floats, so that was kind a perfect situation to make a dolphin toy out of,” Walsh said in an interview with Vex Robotics.
The girls tested the toy by determining whether it was durable enough for Apollo, one of the institute’s strongest dolphins who is known for being destructive with his toys. Although the toy didn’t work because the diameter of the toy was not big enough for the dolphin’s nose to get through, the girls got back to work with plans to design more.
“It would be bigger for the dolphins, because the dolphins like to put their heads through it or throw it up and catch it,” Walsh said. “And it needs to be a little less buoyant, because they like to push their toys under the water and let it bounce back up into their mouth.”
The group has applied for a $2,000 grant to help build an enrichment toy with a lever that the dolphins could push to receive a toy or food.
“I love working with animals, and I love building stuff,” Shemper said. “I love doing robotics, and I work with my best friends every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, practicing our butts off.”
In addition to their work with the dolphins, the Aquabots recently became the Mississippi State Robotics Champions at the State Robotics Tournament, which was held in February at the University of Southern Mississippi. That win earned them a trip to world championship – which would have been their fourth time to compete there – but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented that trip from happening, as it did an award ceremony for their Girl Power book. Vex Robotics did eventually do a live virtual ceremony.
Before the trip was canceled, the girls had gone door-to-door in the community gathering sponsors, including Havard Pest Control.
“It was amazing how much they believed and invested in these kids’ future,” Courtney said. “(After) it got canceled, the girls sent out cards to all of our sponsors thanking them. And these are hard times for businesses, so we told them we’d like to offer them their money back.
“But every single one of the businesses that sponsored us in the Hattiesburg and Oak Grove community said, ‘No, you girls keep it.’ So it was just an amazing, generous thing to do, that they believed in the girls that much. They said use it for next year, because there’s expenses involved with being an independent team not affiliated with the school district. So the girls voted to use the money for the dolphin project, so we can’t wait to see what the future holds.”
In addition to the Aquabots, Courtney also recognized the talent of the several other robotics teams in the area.
“We’re not the only good robotics team in the area; there are so many,” she said. “There’s so much talent in our robotics community in South Mississippi.
“So we’re not trying to send the message that one team is better than the other; we want to celebrate everyone’s accomplishment.”