Local robotics team help start a FIRST LEGO League in Botswana

  • Written by Bob Kirkpatrick


Shakti Senthil (purple) with Botswana teachers


Imagine traveling just shy of 10,000 miles to teach people how to build robots?

Well, that precisely what a group of local area high school kids did last summer when they boarded a plane with Swerve Robotics founder Heidi Lovett bound for Botswana, Africa.

“Team 417—which I had been working with the past three years to help start a FIRST LEGO League there started mentoring them from Woodinville by video chat,” Lovett said. “We were finally able to go and complete our original mission.” 

Lily Jones (North Creek HS), Kaitlin Nguyen (Woodinville HS), Shakti Senthil (Interlake HS), Flynn Duniho (Homeschool /Bellevue College), Thiruvasagam Thirunavukkarasu (Interlake HS), Heidi Lovett, and Madeline Nguyen (UW Bothell) make up Team 417.

One of the first things the team did after getting some much need sleep, Lovett said, was to meet with the FIRST Global team and work with them to get them familiar with the LEGO Mindstorms equipment. 

“Everyone was shy at first, but by the end of the meeting we were all friends.”

Initially, the teaching sessions were scheduled from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. But by day three the classes had extended to 5 p.m.

The individuals taking the classes first learned how to construct a LEGO robot. They then learned to complete missions on a playing field and had to complete a project using core value exercises. The final day of instruction was competition day where student learners had to present their research and run their robots.

“This series of classes was the initial introduction of  FIRST LEGO in Botswana,” Lovett said. “People there had never done this before”.

Those taking the classes weren’t the only ones learning valuable lessons.

“One of the kids mentioned while we were there that we live a privileged life in the U.S. and marveled that a group of high school kids could change the path of the future for another country,” Lovett said. “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

This wasn’t Lovett’s first trip to Botswana.

“I went on a family trip in 2015 where we visited a local school,” Lovett said. “During the visit, I learned that the students were missing out on STEM education. I suggested that they might benefit from the FLL program and that was the beginning of our project.” 

In mid-July, the Botswana team had its first competition in Washington, D.C.

“Their first team showed up but their robot went sight-seeing—never showed up,” Lovett said. “But other teams there had parts and pieces that they shared with them and they were able to build another robot and got to compete.”

Kids who have graduated from her Swerve Robotics program, Lovett said have gone on to attend school at MTI, Cal Tech, Stanford and Colorado School of the Minds (more than $80,000 in scholarships are available to kids in the program), and then have taken jobs in robotics, software, and aerospace. Some work at Microsoft and Apple, too.

Lovett added you never know whom you might connect up with as a student in the FIRST program.

“Your judge just might be the CEO of a tech company looking for future employees. My oldest son became buddies with a person involved with military aircraft for Boeing and the owner and president of LEGO. The networking from FIRST is incredible.”


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