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FIRST® Tech Challenge Helps Shy Student Transform into Community Leader


Anika Yardi, from Team 8121 “Rmageddon” based in Rockville, MD, was one of 10 FIRST Tech Challenge students selected as FIRST® Dean’s List Winners for the 2015-2016 season. Anika is a leader on her robotics team and a fierce advocate for STEM education in her community. Among other outreach and advocacy, Anika has partnered with the Housing Opportunities Commission and Kids Are Scientists Too to create a 10-week robotics course for children in families below the poverty line, advocated for a STEM Officer position in her county, and created a STEM education program for seniors living in a local retirement home.

But Anika didn’t always feel confident in her ability to make a difference. When she joined her local FIRST Tech Challenge team as a high school sophomore, Anika was shy, unassertive, and unsure of herself and her passions. With the support of her robotics team, Anika transformed into a driven leader with a passion for STEM. “The FIRST community is so unique in its ability to welcome people like I used to be with open arms and transform them into the best possible version of themselves they can be,” Anika said. “That’s what FIRST did to me, and that’s what I’ve tried to give back to the community.”

Anika’s Transformation – In Her Own Words

Anika was chosen to speak at FIRST Founder Dean Kamen’s home in July 2016 for the Supporters Summit, where she spoke about her transformation. “My robotics journey was supposed to last for five minutes,” Anika’s began. As a freshman in 2013, she said, she went to a robotics club interest meeting to offer moral support to a friend – and almost turned back in fear outside the meeting room door. But Anika was intrigued by what she heard at the meeting and by the passion and commitment from the upperclassman. She promised herself she would go back – and eventually she did, joining the club a year later as a sophomore.Anika Yardi photo

Anika joined the team, but at first she felt too shy to ask questions or suggest ideas. That began to change after one particular idea struck her during a 2014 meeting on the CASCADE EFFECT℠ Challenge. Read the rest of Anika’s journey in her own words:

The team had just finished a brainstorming session for the game challenge. I did not chime in with any ideas, afraid that they weren’t good enough to say out loud. After the meeting disbanded I retreated to the fringes of the classroom, took a dry erase marker, and began drawing a couple of bucket designs on the whiteboard.

One of these designs involved a bucket with a hole at the bottom and a latch to let the whiffle balls out. It was this design that caught the eye of the mechanical team captain. He came over and peppered me with questions, asking how I thought I could get it to work. As I stumbled over my response, I gained more confidence, telling him about how I thought the bucket could attach to the lift and how they would work together.

Thoughtful for a minute, he asked me to come with him and explain the idea to the rest of the team, which I then did. As everyone spoke excitedly about a working idea for the bucket and lift, I felt the first twinges that this small club might one day become something very important to me.

The feeling was solidified at the East Super-Regional Championship Tournament, where the team gathered in a small hotel room late at night, fixing the harvester of the bot and laughing together. We piled up furniture on the beds so people would have room to sit on the floor and took shifts sleeping so that no one would be completely tired. (We all ended up exhausted by the second day of competition, but it was definitely worth it.)

After we didn’t advance, I was disappointed, but I knew we had two years ahead of us. As the summer went by in a flurry of outreach programs and demos all over our county, I found myself looking forward to the start of school for the first time – and not just because I was going to be a leader on the team.

At the beginning of the summer, I had seen emails about applications for team leadership positions come and go, but I gave no thought to applying myself. I didn’t believe I was qualified. I was encouraged by a captain to apply for the position I had been eyeing: communications captain. I would handle the management, outreach, organization, and notebook for the team, something I felt capable in being able to do with my newfound confidence.

After applying and getting the position, the year went by in a haze. I began to assert myself more and more on the team as I raced to create new projects and learn. In addition to new mechanical and communication skills, I had learned that shyness flies right out of the window when there’s a week left until competition and nothing is done.

I went after opportunities with a fervor that I had never had. A five-minute conversation with a director at a robotics camp turned into the development of a robotics program for children of low-income families, using a 10-week NXT-based program that I had not even believed myself capable of writing. I worked with a company to turn what was previously a local initiative to teach science and technology into a national project which will (crossing my fingers on this) hopefully be successful for the next few years and beyond. Our team didn’t make it past the state Championship, but the journey we went on together was so, so wonderful and more importantly, so, so fun. And who knows? Maybe next year will finally be our year.

Anika Yardi photoAs part of FIRST, I have learned to problem solve, come up with quick solutions without losing my cool, lead a team, multitask, delegate, and get results. Yeah, it can be frustrating when the lift breaks down for the one-hundredth time right before you’re about to compete, or when someone “forgets” to write in the notebook after you’ve told them to do it a thousand times. But it happens, and FIRST has also taught me that not everything is in your control. It’s how you react to situations that makes the bigger difference.

I’ve discovered a new passion for engineering and robotics, and for teaching these skills to a new generation. I never believed I was inclined towards the sciences and technology. But I’ve found skills I didn’t know I had and a joy in teaching robotics that I didn’t expect. There is nothing quite like watching weeks of planning all slide into place for the night of an event, or like seeing a little kid so ecstatic over the little robot she has just built that she makes a vow to become an engineer.

Most importantly, I have gained confidence in myself and the fact that I can do whatever I set my mind to. I have come a long way from not being able to speak at meetings; now I run them.

FIRST took a shy, awkward, little ninth grader and gave her a community to belong to, who encouraged her every single step of the way, and who always made her feel like her voice and opinion mattered and that she could do anything. Because of FIRST, I know that I want to be part of the STEM world and work with it in a close capacity. I also know that I want to continue working with FIRST and hopefully mentor teams of my own after I graduate.

My robotics journey was supposed to last for five minutes. Thus far it has been three wonderful years – and if I’m lucky, it will last a lifetime.