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Kaiya Hollister, Jensie Coonradt smash gender stereotypes ahead of Robot Olympiad

Elementary school students Kaiya Hollister and Jensie Coonradt are well on their way to a successful career in the growing STEM sector.
/ Source: TODAY

By 2022, there will be some 1.3 million job openings in the computer and mathematical fields according to the Department of Labor. That’s good news for Kaiya Hollister and Jensie Coonradt, who, at the tender ages of 10 and 9, respectively, are well on their way to a successful career in the growing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sector.

Hollister and Coonradt took home first place at the World Robot Olympiad National Championship Sept. 22. The only all-girl elementary school team and their robot named “Robbie” beat out 24 other teams in their age group and will go on to compete in the World Robot Olympiad International Championship in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 6.

Kaiya Hollister and Jensie Coonradt will compete in the World Robot Olympiad
Jensie Coonradt and Kaiya Hollister, left, will compete in the World Robot International Olympiad.Chasewood Learning

Vying for the trophy under the team name “Robogals,” the girls are required to design and build a Lego-based robot and program it to navigate a complicated series of commands on a 94-inch by 40-inch playing field. Scoring is based on accuracy and speed. To shake things up, Olympiad organizers introduce a surprise rule on teams who are then granted just two-and-a-half hours to adjust, rebuild and re-program their bot. The rule can be anything from an obstacle on the course to a time limit change.

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“I love the surprise rule because it will make things challenging,” Coonradt, a fourth grader at a suburban Chicago elementary school, told “I love problem-solving.”

The Robogals are supervised by Will Wong, owner of Chasewood Learning, an after school STEM-based learning program. Wong said Hollister’s aptitude for mechanical engineering and Coonradt’s impressive programming skills stood out almost immediately.

“They make a great team,” said Wong. Both girls’ moms agree.

Kaiya Hollister and Jensie Coonradt will compete in the World Robot Olympiad
Kaiya Hollister and Jensie Coonradt with Will WongChasewood Learning

“They are really professional little girls,” Jensie’s mom Laurel told TODAY. “Building and programming Robbie involves so much trial and error so there are some tears but there’s a lot of laughter.”

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Kaiya’s mom Sarah said the girls have been working 40 to 60 hours a week preparing for the competition, tackling engineering glitches and employing communication and teamwork skills. The intense preparation and their success is a huge confidence booster for the girls, even when the parents of several all-boys teams questioned the Robogals integrity and demanded the judges examine their robot.

“They couldn’t believe two girls built that complicated of a robot,” said Sarah Hollister.

The girls' robot, 'Robbie'
The girls' robot, 'Robbie'Chasewood Learning

What about being girls in a field dominated by boys?

“They never saw their gender as an obstacle,” said Sarah Hollister. “They just went out there and did their best.”

It’s a path that worked for Grace Ng, who got hooked on STEM at an early age, and now attends Stanford University, where she is an interdisciplinary computer science major. Like the Robogals, Ng attended science camps and participated in similar science and math competitions during elementary, middle and high school.

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“You get to explore outside of what’s taught in the classroom and really learn how to apply computer science and technology to the real world,” Ng told TODAY.

Ng also runs STEM workshops for girls in local elementary, middle and high schools and she’s always impressed with the students’ ambition despite their age.

“They go for it, every time,” said Ng. “The workshops really allow students to get their hands dirty.”

“It’s the best way to get girls excited about engineering,” Ng added.

And they should be jazzed about the STEM fields — with women earning an estimated 33 percent more than women in non-STEM careers, according to the Department of Commerce — and where job opportunities are plentiful.

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More than 20,000 teams from 50 countries will participate in the World Robot International Olympiad. Robogals have set up a GoFundMe page to help offset expenses to Qatar and an additional trip to Beijing, China, where they will attend the World Robot Conference Competition.

“I can’t wait to go to Qatar,” said Jensie Coonradt, “because all the people there will speak my language — robot.”