Two Aurora 'RoboGals' are U.S. robotics champions
Robotics whizzes at the mere age of 10, and often the only girls in roomfuls of boys, Jensie Coonradt and Kaiya Hollister know all about standing out -- and being underestimated.
"(A boys' team) was talking extra loud during competition and saying, 'Look at that girl team. They probably won't make it," Kaiya said.
"Another team said, 'How could they build that (robot)? I bet they cheated,'" Jensie said.
Remarks like those just provide extra motivation for the Aurora girls, who call themselves the "RoboGals" and are the reigning U.S. champions in the elementary category of the World Robot Olympiad.
The competition pits teams who use special Lego kits to build and program robots that must complete a specific mission.
Earlier this month, the RoboGals took on teams from more than 50 countries in the world championship in Qatar, and now they're on their way to China to compete at the World Robot Conference next week.
"I'm going to be a robotics engineer," said Jensie, who wants to build robots that clean oceans. "I decided that the second I started this competition because this is my passion."
"I'm going to be a mechanical engineer, and I'm going to work with humanoid robots," said Kaiya, who hopes to work with robots that help doctors, police officers and firefighters.
The girls handily won the national title in September, posting a time twice as fast as the second-place team.
"I was just blown away at how quickly they were able to do it," said Mike Dobbyn, a judge at the national competition. "I was very, very impressed. I was almost amazed at the fact that they were able to come up with not so much the programming, but just the strategy of how to tackle the task was really quite amazing."
Their experience at the world championship in Qatar was less triumphant -- they didn't make it to the second round among 74 teams -- but wonderful nonetheless, Kaiya said.
"It was really cool, because we got to see all the people's robots," she said. "It was amazing. After all that, you're not really upset if you did well or you didn't -- you're just happy you went there, because it was all breathtaking."
Both girls are straight-A students, Jensie at The Wheatlands Elementary School and Kaiya at John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School, both in Aurora. Jensie is on club soccer and swim teams, while Kaiya is on running and tennis teams. She also plays chess and is learning to play the piano.
"It just feels like I need to (be a good student)," Jensie said. "I feel motivated."
"When it comes to school ... I get completely focused and I end up finishing everything," Kaiya said.
Jensie and Kaiya study robotics at Chasewood Learning, an Aurora after-school program that teaches robotics to kids. While Kaiya is social and funny, Jensie is shy and reserved, though the bond with Kaiya has helped bring her out of her shell.
"I do the programing and I get stressed all the time," Jensie said.
"I'm kind of not worried about it because at the end of the day, we usually get it fixed," Kaiya said. "My main focus is the building."
Chasewood Learning founder Will Wong said the girls are extraordinarily dedicated.
"They are very different personality-wise and skill-wise, and they have an amazing amount of persistence, which is a big thing in this," he said. "They're just exceptionally smart."
The girls programmed their robot to place colored blocks into appropriate slots by sensing the different colors. The more the robot gets it right, the more points the team earns during competition, which begins with building the robot from scratch.
"Once I teach them a concept, they just run with it," Wong said. "Jensie, I'll teach her how to calibrate colors and she'll just do it once and she'll get it. Kaiya also understands it all; she has an amazing intellectual aptitude."
The girls prepare for competitions by practicing 40 to 60 hours per week, often as late as 11 p.m. or midnight, incessantly building, taking apart and rebuilding their robot, which they named "Robbie."
"This is the hardest fun you'll ever have. I end up staying here hours, doing it again and again," Jensie said.
"You get a feeling like everything you've learned has finally paid off when you've finally solved a problem," Kaiya said. "You feel a glow in your eyes when you make something happen that you didn't expect but turns out for the better."
Jensie's mother, Laurel, said she's never seen her daughter so engaged.
"She's going to be a workaholic," Laurel Coonradt said. "One time we were leaving early because everyone was tired, but then Jensie said, 'The robot is not right.' So we came back in and left at 1 a.m."
There's never a day that Kaiya doesn't want to work on robotics, said her mother, Sarah.
"It's truly what she's passionate about," Sarah Hollister said. "But robots may be second to her personal development, which was an unforeseen take-away."
The girls said robotics truly has changed their lives.
"It makes you find out more things about yourself, like how you handle frustration when you can't solve a problem," Jensie said.
Kaiya agreed. "It's also finding your strength in what part of it you're doing. Finding your strength in how you work on a team with people."
Wong said he's especially dedicated to encouraging girls to get into the male-dominated field of robotics.
"I want to fast-forward 10 years, and I want to see where they are then," he said. "I'm that excited about these girls."
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School: The Wheatlands Elementary School
Who inspires you? Mr. Will (Wong, founder of Chasewood Learning) because he inspired me to love robots and I'm so happy that I found my passion at age 9.
What book are you reading? "A Series of Unfortunate Events," a series by Lemony Snicket.
What music are you listening to? Owl City.
The three words that best describe you? Brave. Smart. Hardworking.
Kaiya HollisterAge: 10
School: John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School
Who inspires you? Mr. Will (Wong, founder of Chasewood Learning), because I tried several other things in my entire life and I finally found a spot where I belong.
What book are you reading? "Cinder" by Marissa Meyer.
What music are you listening to? I like pretty much everything.
The three words that best describe you? Social. Adventurous. Fun.