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When you ask someone what they think of when they hear “Girl Scouts,” the answers will usually include cookies, crafts, and camping. But for one Alaskan dad, he thinks of his all-girl LEGO robotics team, the Electronically Overdressed Survivors.
By day, he works at the Army Corps of Engineers, but by night, “I am, in fact, a troop leader,” Bruce said with a laugh. “People are usually a bit confused by that at first, but that’s my role. I get to lead this special troop of girls as a part of the Girl Scouts Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) program and get them ready for competition.”
The competition? First LEGO League (FLL), a themed robotics competition pitting teams against each other at the local, national, and international levels. This year’s theme is education, following on the previous years’ theme of natural disasters.
At the beginning of Bruce’s involvement with FLL, he was not a troop leader, but was asked to be a judge. He came home that day, as per usual, and talked to his daughter, Ellie, now 12. While talking about their days, they came to realize that Ellie was participating in the same competition Bruce was asked to judge. He accepted the position, and was able to see his daughter’s competition firsthand. “We went that first weekend and I got hooked,” said Bruce. “After five years of being involved, I became the head coach of my daughter’s team, or essentially their troop [leader].”
At face value, FLL seems like a single-sided competition: build a robot and have it perform simple tasks. However, Bruce maintains it is much more complex than it seems. As Bruce explained, “One-fourth of the competition is overall score, but there is also a robot and programming portion, where the girls describe how they designed the robot; a research component, where they investigate the theme, identify a problem, and present a solution to the judging panel; and finally, a core value component, where the participants have to demonstrate values like ‘gracious professionalism,’ not unlike the values of the Girl Scouts.”
While Bruce was, obviously, never a Girl Scout, he said this experience has given him a great appreciation for the organization, as well as volunteering. “I have to thank the Girl Scouts for sponsoring this team and letting a dad take the lead,” Bruce said. “Stereotypically, in STEM fields, people think boys would be better than girls, but we won our [co-ed] state competition last year, and we’re breaking that stereotype every day.”
But just because they’re winners, doesn’t mean they’re going to slow down. “Our plan is to win state this year again, and work our way to an international competition that’s being held in St. Louis,” Bruce divulged. “We have a great team, a fantastic group of young ladies, and I want to know much more we can achieve by working together and motivating each other.”
But as much as the girls are learning about robotics, Bruce is learning even more about himself. “Sometimes you have to keep the rough and gruff exterior, but when there are deeper issues going on, you need to turn on the empathy,” said Bruce. “It’s thrilling to be able to work with them, especially my daughter.”