Imagine being tasked with the mission of reuniting a robot mother sea creature with her three babies, and then having to get them to a safe location. Add in a few polar vortexes along the way and a time constraint, and it seems like an unimaginable task for one person.
Not for Alia Peterson, a student at Rosedale Middle School.
This month, Peterson was announced the grand prize winner in the Wonder League Robotics Competition, an international coding and robotics competition, beating out more than 7,800 teams from around the world. She received a $5,000 STEM grant from Wonder Workshop and a robot of her choice.
"I was not expecting to win," she said. "As they were announcing the top five, I was like, 'OK, some other person is going to get it and they can get it over with.' Then I was like, 'Oh, it’s not someone else!'"
Peterson, using the team name Team Cadenza for the competition, beat out teams from Ukraine, Nebraska, Michigan, Republic of Korea and Canada in the 12-14 age group.
She has been working with robots for several years now, her mother, Danielle Peterson, explained. When Danielle Peterson learned about Wonder Workshop and its activities related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (STEM), she had to sign up her children.
"Where we lived before there weren’t a lot of STEM opportunities, so when I saw that these robots were coming out and were kid-friendly, I thought that would be a good option to give them exposure to those fields and ways of thinking," Danielle Peterson said.
Alia Peterson received a robot and began participating in several mini competitions put on by the company. At first, Danielle Peterson explained, the challenges were simple so kids could get familiar with the robots. Later on, Alia Peterson began participating in large-scale ones.
The mother sea creature has been used in several challenges, Alia Peterson explained. The original mission was to save a sea creature, which was a tennis ball, and bring it back to the surface using her robot.
For the latest mission, the mother was a robot that had to find her way to her three babies, which were "ping pong balls on top of upside down water bottle caps."
"One of the things we were supposed to do was to create a story to describe our mission like we were oceanographers," she said.
Once the robot drove over to the babies, it had to relocate each of the three babies to a nest, or upside down cups. Part of the challenge was navigating through polar vortexes.
She ultimately did not relocate all of the babies because she ran out of time. About a week before the competition, she was still trying to get the attachments, which would act as appendages, that her robot would use to pick up the baby sea creatures. But judges were still impressed with her work.
Judges wrote, "she excelled at everything else," and that she "took her viewers along with her every step of the way, making us feel like a part of her team."
Participating in this competition and previous ones has given Alia Peterson a sense of belonging and taught her more than just robotics and coding.
"You don’t have to be the popular girl in school, you don’t have to have someone else to do stuff for or anything," she said. "I can do things on my own and do cool stuff."
Her mother is also happy to see the STEM field being more welcoming to young girls.
"Her older sister told me, 'I can’t do computers, robotics, that's just for guys.' She tried to join the robotics club, and the boys were very adamant that her role was just as a cheerleader," Danielle Peterson recalled.
"I’ve been a huge proponent to exposing girls to STEAM and STEM fields ... and that the sky's the limit and they can do absolutely everything they want and there are no limitations just because of their gender," she said.