First-graders Drew Williams and Camille Mascarenas, pictured here with their Dash robot, placed second in their age group recently in the Wonder League Robotics Competition. Their team, Robot Ninja Helpers, was one of 5,000 to vie in the international competition. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Life with Gracie: Cobb first-graders place second in international robotics competition

The little boy is 7 and the girl only 6, best friends for sure and lovers of all things robotic.

They are a team and they call themselves the Robot Ninja Helpers.

It might not have been except on Christmas morning 2015, the little boy, whose name is Drew Williams, opened a present from his grandmother, Rebecca Stensland, and inside was a bright blue and orange Dash Robot.

His mother, Beth Denman, who home schools Drew and his sister, began following Silicon Valley-based education and robotics startup Wonder Workshop’s Facebook page. It was there that she saw news of their upcoming robotics competition.

“I thought it would be a really good thing to integrate coding into our curriculum and decided to create a team,” the Austell mom explained recently.

If one of your eyebrows has suddenly gone northward, hold on.

First-graders Camille Mascarenas and Drew Williams, co-captains of Robot Ninja Helpers, perform coding with their Dash robot. The Cobb County first-graders placed second in their age group recently in the international Wonder League Robotics Competition of some 5,000 teams. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Parents and some schools for years have been using Dash and its companion Dot to teach children as young as 5 coding.

“Kids love working through problems with tangible tools,” said Mike Lorion, vice president and general manager of education at Wonder Workshop. “They’re incredibly creative and determined. Give a 5-year-old a mission or a challenge, and she’s on the case.

“This way of thinking, which is so innate for young children, is also the first step to learning computer science and coding. Kids first learn to code, but then code to learn, applying these concepts across multiple aspects of their thinking.”

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The company’s founder, Vikas Gupta, started Wonder Workshop because he worried that his own daughter was growing up in a world where women make up less than one-quarter of the computer science workforce. Gupta wanted to change the story. His team painstakingly studied the causes of today’s “gender gap” in science, technology, engineering and math. The fix? Get ‘em enamored while they’re young. Give kids engaging tools that light up their imaginations, like lively little robots.

And so they did. Dash and Dot can be programmed, for instance, to deliver messages, kick a ball, shoot a basket, play hide and seek, and navigate through mazes. Its head, which spins around, has a single, Cyclops-like eye. Sometimes Dash emits a cheerful chime — a sign that it approves of its programmer’s actions, which, by the way, makes the robot more like a friend than an object and therefore more endearing to its programmers.

Denman reached out to a few fellow home school parents but couldn’t get any traction. Their busy schedules just wouldn’t mesh, but she didn’t give up.

She called her longtime friend, Jenna Mascarenas of Mableton, mother of 6-year-old Camille, as inquisitive and determined as her friend Drew.

One mention of a robotics competition and the Mascarenases, specifically Camille, were all in. Camille attends King Springs Elementary in Smyrna.

RELATED: Schools try to close gender gap in math, science, tech studies

Drew and Camille, with Denman as their coach, blew through test challenges figuring out how to program Dash to use its sensors, navigate around objects, and come alive with lights and sounds.

Then per the competition guidelines, they set out writing code to help navigate Dash around faraway Bear Byte Island to rescue an animal habitat. They had until midnight Dec. 15 to submit their completed missions along with video.

This drawing shows the apparatus Drew Williams and Camille Mascarenas, co-captains of Robot Ninja Helpers, used in the Wonder League Robotics Competition. The Cobb County first-graders placed second in their age group in the international competition. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Robot Ninja Helpers were among more than 5,000 teams and 20,000 kids from around the world to sign up for the competition.

Thirty teams from each age group, including the Robot Ninja Helpers, made it to the second round.

Denman cried.

“I had no expectations going into it,” she said. “It just kind of blew my mind. I wanted them to have the experience of competing, coding and working together on something challenging and fun.”

Days later, they were at it again.

“It was only one final mission, but there was a lot more to it,” Jenna Mascarenas said. “They had to make a video which introduced themselves, their towns and their schools as well as address specific questions and keep a science journal showing a minimum of three failures. It was due Feb. 24.”

They submitted the final mission a few days early in the form of a blog at www.robotninjahelpers.com, and on March 27, Denman got an email. The news was good.

The Robot Ninja Helpers had placed second for ages 6-8 behind X-PLODE, a team from India.

Wonder Workshop planned to make a formal announcement via Facebook Live the following day. Denman hosted a midday party at her home for Drew, Camille and their family members.

The moment team Robot Ninja Helpers heard their names, Camille jumped for joy. Drew was disappointed.

“I wanted to be first,” he said.

His father, Scott Williams, pulled him away from the crowd. The competition was a good way to introduce critical thinking aspects of coding to his son in a fun and engaging way, but there was a bigger lesson here he didn’t want Drew to miss.

How you play the game is far more important than winning.

They watched the winning team’s solution video and had to agree. X-PLODE deserved first place.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In a culture that increasingly demands kids be awarded participation trophies, you have to give these parents their props. They seem to understand that participation awards hurt our kids’ ability to learn that success is the result of hard work and persevering through failure and loss.

The benefit of competition isn’t actually winning, the benefit is failing forward.

When I talked to Drew, a perfectionist people pleaser who loves math and drones, about his response, he said sadness was a first reaction.

“I was a little whiny at first, but Papa talked to me and I had a second reaction,” he said. “He told me a lot of people came off of work so they could watch the announcement and he wanted me to understand that it was really good getting second place out of more than 100 teams. I was fine the next reaction. I clapped.”

“I was happy that we had good teamwork and we made it all the way to second in the whole entire universe!” said Camille, a girl who loves reading, creating art, and music, when asked how she felt about the big announcement.

That isn’t to say that he and Camille are done. They both want to compete again in the Wonder League Robotics Competition because they believe they can get to first place.

In my book, they’re already winners, but if first place is what they want, sure, go for it.

I think they can win it all, too.

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