They’re a robotics team and a Girl Scout troop, but neither label fully defines the members of Kalispell’s RoboScout Squad. As the girls look to their individual futures, they reflect on how their time together has changed them.
It was the first time she’d ever seen the ocean, and even though the sun had already dipped beneath the horizon, she just wasn’t ready to leave.
A member of the RoboScout Squad, a local Girl Scout troop focused on competitive robotics, Zia and her four teammates were in Texas for the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) World Championship after winning the 2022 Montana state competition.
“We collected shells, lots of shells,” Zia reminisces, as her robotics coach and Girl Scout leader Krista Nunnally tears up.
“That makes you cry,” Krista says, “when they haven’t seen the ocean before. Amazing.”
The troop meets in their robotics lab, a cheerful room nicknamed the HideyHub, where a pegboard filled with colorful tools and robot parts takes up an entire wall. Championship banners and a giant poster outlining the engineering design process fill the others, while a fish tank bubbles in the corner. An entire bookcase is filled with trophies, but that has never been the focus for these girls.
“A big thing we say is it’s not about what we win, it’s about what we learn.”
“A big thing we say is it’s not about what we win, it’s about what we learn,” says Krista.
It’s a mantra that holds true not only in the HideyHub, but also on the world stage. At each FTC competition, teams not only have to build a well-functioning robot, they also participate in robot games both as teammates and paired with members of opposing teams. Informal judges meander between the robot games, casually observing team member interactions, while formal judges listen to each team present their season highlights. Though teams need a reliable robot to qualify for a top prize, they can’t win without impressing the judges with their poise (“gracious professionalism”) and cooperative competitive spirit (“coopertition”), terms coined and trademarked by the FIRST competition’s founders (FIRST, incidentally, stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). As a result, “It’s in everyone’s best interest that everyone does well,” explains Krista.
This connective spirit inspires more than just good engineering. Veteran troop member Lexi Nunnally graduated in 2022 and dreams of becoming a Disney animator. While her subject matter is decidedly removed from the nuts and bolts of robotics, the principles she learned continue to influence her
“Working together is such an integral part of FIRST, and [in college], you need to work with everybody,” she says. “In my illustrator class, we work together to make everybody better.” That’s not always easy, especially for an introvert like Lexi who, admittedly, doesn’t always want to talk to people. But participating in and now mentoring the RoboScout Squad “makes me more confident in what I’m doing, saying, and in helping people.”
Kennedy Dortch agrees. A junior in high school, Kennedy still has no idea what she wants to study post-graduation, but her participation in the RoboScout Squad has fueled her confidence in other areas of her life.
“Before I started [RoboScouts] in 6th grade, I would rather walk on a bunch of hot coals than give a public presentation, and now I’m like, ‘Aight,’” she laughs, adding that although she’d been involved in theater for years, this was her first year performing in front of the curtain.
From theater to dance, music, and part-time jobs, each RoboScout is actively involved in many different facets of their schools and community. In these capacities, they’re forging the kinds of cross-curricular connections that
Each year, teams must implement FTC’s chosen theme in both their robot designs and outreach activities. This year’s theme was “energize.” With the help of coach Nunnally, her co-coach Sherri Sadino, and other mentors, the RoboScouts not only killed it by building a lightning-bolt clad robot named McQueen (Ka-Chow!), but they connected with the community in
“In the midst of all the beams, beeps, and screws, one thing is clear: win or lose, the RoboScouts are bringing home the gold.”
“We got to tour really cool places,” Zia gushes.
They visited the Columbia Falls headquarters of SWAE, a local, swanky, under-the-radar technology innovation company, where they not only sat in a gold carbon fiber Lamborghini, but they picked the brains of high-end engineers.
“They’ve given us some insight into some of our different robot designs, and they were super duper awesome and 3D printed the spoiler that’s on our robot,” Kennedy says.
“They do race cars, so it fits,” Krista adds.
The RoboScouts have also toured the landfill gas-to-energy plant, explored sustainability and the power grid with Flathead Electric, and worked hand-in-hand with tactical specialists at Nomad Global Communication Solutions. And that’s just the techie stuff.
“I really like children, and I want to work with children when I’m older,” Zia says. She and Krista point to photos on their official presentation board—showing off McQueen at the Boys & Girls Club, visiting a young Girl Scout troop on a badge night—as the other girls giggle and chime in, “That was so fun!”
Graduating senior Jessie Chadwick works 30 hours a week in addition to a rigorous school schedule to help support her family. “But I love [RoboScouts] so much, I’m willing to sacrifice hours of sleep to do robotics and get to be part of something really cool,” she says. Her sacrifice is already paying off, sometimes literally, as she applies for college scholarships. “I definitely feel a lot more confident representing myself since I’ve spent so much time advocating for the team.”
As team members demonstrate McQueen’s skills on the robotics game board in the center of the HideyHub floor, I can’t help but feed off of the way these girls—dare I say it—energize each other. Their easy camaraderie is a tangible reminder that this program is about so much more than knowing the difference between a sonic hub and a hyper hub.
When Jessie joined the RoboScouts in seventh grade, her mother had just passed away. “So that was totally devastating,” she says, “but I remember coming to robotics, and it was just such a light that I could come into every day.” She describes how building things with the team allowed her to “have some type of control over something in my life—it really just helped push me through those times. And the community—I love them so much.”
“I don’t want girls to stop doing something they enjoy doing because of some outside reason, because something is making them feel uncomfortable or someone is telling them that they can’t, because they can.”
– Krista Nunnally, robotics coach and Girl Scout leader
Krista wants her girls to have every opportunity to do what they love, whatever that is. “I don’t want girls to stop doing something they enjoy doing because of some outside reason, because something is making them feel uncomfortable or someone is telling them that they can’t,” she says, “because they can. Everyone’s got it, everyone’s got something to contribute. And if you want to have fun with us, come have fun with us!”
Before I leave, Krista introduces me to Flowers, the resident beta fish in the bubbling corner tank. She points out the automatic feeder stand the girls built from robot parts. They named Flowers after FIRST founder Woody Flowers, she explains, because “he was the one that was so big on kids getting more out of this than just the science part.” As Flowers flutters his fins in the tank, I’m reminded of Zia running at the ocean for her very first time, arms wide and bare feet splashing.
I think of Kennedy on stage and Lexi speaking up in class.
Of Jessie reaching for dreams she never even knew existed.
And in the midst of all the beams, beeps, and screws, one thing is clear: win or lose, the RoboScouts are bringing home the gold.
NOTE: The RoboScout Squad is recruiting new members! No prior robotics experience needed. If you know a girl in eighth grade or older who wants to have a blast with this incredible Girl Scout troop, email email@example.com for more information!
Top left to right: Jessie Chadwick, Katie Eberhardy, Kiska Brassington
Bottom left to right: Kennedy Dortch, Zia Walker
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