The Sparklebots switch between Swahili and English as they gather around their robot between matches to repair a broken string, reinforce a support or improve the grip of the metal arms. Tools and advice are shared among the two dozen teams buzzing around the gymnasium at Marion High School on a Saturday in January, vying to move on to the next level of competition, a Super Qualifier in February.
The team’s motto — engineering is math, but louder — rings especially true during the FIRST Tech Challenge league championship as the Sparklebots chant from the stands, supporting their competing team members and drawing attention and applause from competitors and fans.
FIRST Tech Challenge teams build and program a robot to lift foam cubes into a rack, tracking their design and progress in an engineering notebook.
Now in its fifth year, the team is made up entirely of girls whose families came to the United States from Africa. Many were refugees who initially settled elsewhere in the country, later landing in Cedar Rapids after hearing of job and education opportunities through family and social networks.
Most of the girls’ parents didn’t attend college — some have no high school education — so the robotics club and FIRST Tech Challenge have exposed them to opportunities in higher education and the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. This also sets them apart from other teams, many of which have parental involvement and corporate sponsorships for support.
But the Sparklebots are building more than robots — they’re building the confidence and skills they need to succeed academically and pursue a college education.