All-girl STEM team builds problem-solving robot

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COLUMBIA - The girls on a robotics team were not at all happy when their coach, Katie Hurst told them: “Out of 100 percent of people, we’ve got only only 29 percent of that for science and engineering are girls.”

“That kind of sucks,” Sophie Terry said. 

“That’s not very cool is it?” Hurst asked.  

This was the start to a team meeting, which happens every Wednesday after school. Sophie, Maryam Hurst, Kylie Journell and Olivia Chang, all fourth graders in Columbia, will compete in the First Lego League in November. 

It is a tournament where children ages 9-16 work in teams to research a real-world problem, create a solution and build a Lego robot to demonstrate it. The event works to promote science, technology, engineering and math concepts, also known as STEM skills.   

This year’s theme is Hydrodynamics- the human water cycle. The girls decided to find a way to get clean water to hurricane victims.

“I suggested that we learn a bit about hurricanes and so did Olivia, and that just led us to where we’re at in the long run,” Sophie said.

Dustin and Katie Hurst, Maryam’s parents, co-coach the team.

“What we’re seeing is growing minds, and we’re trying our best to encourage that and not construct or limit that," Dustin Hurst said. "What we’re doing now for these girls pays off in a week, in a year, in a decade and them carrying this skill-set into a successful life, whatever they do."

Both coaches said they experienced difficulty when they switched from a parent role to that of a coach.

“As an adult and having experience, we look at the kids trying to make a decision, and we know in our heads what the right decision is, but we’re not allowed to tell them. It can sometimes be painful to see them work to get to that decision. That part is hard to just sit back. It’s really hard to be hands off,” Dustin Hurst said.

While the Hursts can't steer the girls in a particular direction, they and other parents are helping in other ways.

"We had a conference call with the divisional director of FEMA, and two people from Boone County Emergency Management come to the house, and a professor from the university that works in the Water Research Center. They were able to just kind of talk through things," Dustin Hurst said. 

He said it takes a collaborative effort to get expert sources to talk with the girls.

“This team wouldn’t work well without the parents also. They’ve been really good,” he said.  

All parents involved have a common goal for the girls.

“Thinking is a big part of what we’re trying to encourage, just thinking,” Dustin Hurst said.

It costs the team close to $2,000 to participate in the league. There is a GoFundMe page for anyone who wants to donate.