Think twice about the Girl Scouts selling cookies in a supermarket parking lot, and what's behind those sweet smiles.
Each week members of Troop 1868, aka the Space Cookies, gather in a laboratory at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View to work on their secret weapon. They pass through the guarded gates with government clearances and confer with some of the facility's top scientists. They design electrical circuits and computer programs and they do their own machining.
Their project, a 5-foot-tall, 120-pound, Frisbee-throwing contraption named Willow, is taking part in robotics competitions throughout the country -- and making some impressive showings. On Nov. 10, the team made the quarter finals at Madtown Throwdown, winning both the Spirit and Excellence in Engineering awards. They competed at the National Championships in St. Louis and were finalists in the Silicon Valley and Sacramento regionals.
In early November, they demonstrated their robot to more than 30,000 people at the Bay Area Science Festival in AT&T park.
The 89 Space Cookies from schools throughout the Bay Area -- including 40 from Palo Alto -- are part of a collaboration between the Girl Scouts and NASA Ames designed to encourage girls to enter the STEM professions: science, technology, engineering and medicine. Middle and high school girls participate in hands-on engineering, mechanical design, fabrication, electronics, programming, team leadership, marketing, graphic design and community-outreach projects.
The ongoing training culminates each year in a robot that competes in FIRST Robotics competitions. FIRST, an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is an international program that gives teens "real-world engineering" experience and builds confidence and leadership.
On Oct. 4, the Space Cookies placed 15th out of 36 teams in the FIRST Robotics Cal Games competition in Sunnyvale. Clad in powder-blue T-shirts, about 70 Space Cookies attended.
In the "pit" area, Gunn High School Senior Elizabeth Chang-Davidson and Palo Alto High School Senior Ebeth Mittmann contorted around their robot, checking wires and adjusting bolts.
Mittmann, the team's mechanics captain, plans to study mechanical engineering or applied physics -- or perhaps robotics engineering, she said. Since joining the Space Cookies, she has gained confidence, she said.
"I'm fairly introverted. I feel I learned to lead other girls. I came in and did small tasks that nobody else would do, and now I lead. We definitely have a sense of community. ... Just at school today, I ran into five different Space Cookies," she said.
Team Captain Maddy Augustine, a senior at Pinewood School in Los Altos Hills, plans to study civil engineering. Building robots with the Space Cookies for four years has helped her discover her passion and career path, she said.
"I don't know what I would be doing if I wasn't doing this. Engineering is such an integral part of my life. My Friday nights I spend at the lab. My friends are like, 'Oh -- you want to hang out?' And I say: 'Sorry, I have robotics,'" she said.
This year's robot challenge was called Ultimate Ascent. The robots were to launch as many Frisbees as possible at different targets. Willow, the Space Cookies' robot, made its way into the ring. The girls cheered and waved blue pom-poms as the robot tossed its Frisbees. Then came the final challenge. Willow climbed a pyramid to its second rung and dunked Frisbees into a hole at the top of the pyramid. The girls cheered wildly.
Ann Wettersen, troop leader and team coach, said the team is girl-driven. She takes on an advisory role, but the work and problem solving are all their own.
"The girls are great -- very smart, very talented. It's a great community builder. They are great ambassadors for the Girl Scouts and NASA. They are very professional and gracious," she said.
But these brainy girls are sometimes still forced to explain themselves to their male counterparts, who can't always fathom that a girl can create such a competitive machine, Augustine said.
"They make assumptions. They say, 'Oh, your team coach must have built your robot' -- or 'The NASA scientists must have built it.' But it's a little flattering that they think professional engineers built a robot that we actually built."