My Biggest Source of Grade-School Adventure Came from My Robotics Team

A FIRST Alum Reflects on Her Nine-Year FIRST Journey

Jan 02, 2019 By Rose Lam, FIRST Alum




The Ponytail Posse competed as a robotics team for nine years in FIRST LEGO League and later FIRST Tech Challenge.


Editor’s Note: When Rose Lam was in fourth grade, she and some friends started The Ponytail Posse, an all-girls FIRST LEGO League team (2009-2014) that progressed into a FIRST Tech Challenge team (2014-2018) in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now a FIRST alum, Rose reflected on the team blog about the Posse’s nine-year journey as FIRST participants across programs, the “massive head start” she and her teammates gained on their futures, and their plans as FIRST alumni, volunteers and mentors. We’ve shared an excerpt below.

My dad had been coaching FIRST LEGO League in our basement for two years by the time I was in 4th grade and old enough to participate. Whenever the team left the house, I would sneak downstairs and play “inventor” with their NXT LEGO robot. I had no idea what the buttons did, so I would pretend to press them and drive the robot around by hand. I kept a running list of “inventions” in my school notebook: “wiggle bot,” “dance bot,” and so on. The one time I actually did press a button and the robot moved a little bit on its own, I was ecstatic. That was my first introduction to the world of robotics. I had a lot of fun cheering for my dad’s teams at competitions during those years, but it was even better when I got to start a team of my own. – Rose

The Ponytail Posse started in 2009 with a group of eight enthusiastic fourth- and fifth-grade girls. Our team membership fluctuated back and forth for the first few years, but by 2012, we had become as a close-knit family of hardworking and committed team members. Whether we have been here from the start or joined much further down the path, each of us has developed an incredible connection to this team that we can’t imagine living without.

People are usually able to understand the depth of how participating in robotics affects lives. They understand that it helps us gain experiences which help us become better engineers, problem solvers, and collaborators. But while they understand the depth, these people often fail to recognize the breadth of how being part of a robotics team can shape a young person. It’s not just a path toward a successful STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career, but a gateway to self-expression, confidence, critical thinking, and empathy.

As stated by FIRST founder Dean Kamen, we don’t build the robots — the robots build us.

When you’re in fourth grade and you hear about how FIRST inspires people to become engineers, you don’t think about how that applies to you. Those of us who joined a robotics team at nine years old were there because we enjoyed building with LEGO pieces and working together with our friends. Some of us were in it for the Sunday night team dinners and everything else was extra.

But as we got older, we began to realize how our robotics experiences were influencing how we thought about the future. We could see ourselves going to college and starting a career in engineering, entrepreneurship, and other fields we had never considered before. These were tangible destinations that we had already been pursuing for years without realizing it — in other words, we were giving ourselves a massive head start.

Members of the Ponytail Posse compete in a FIRST LEGO League tournament during the 2009-2010 season (left) and a FIRST Tech Challenge tournament during the 2017-2018 season (right).

Members of the Ponytail Posse compete in a FIRST LEGO League tournament during the 2009-2010 season (left) and a FIRST Tech Challenge tournament during the 2017-2018 season (right).

This journey has been a wild ride. From visiting the FIRST Championship donning purple sashes to racing our robot against elementary school students to becoming the official FIRST “Social Media Street Team,” no one could have predicted the amazing experiences we would have from start to finish. The Posse has been our biggest source of adventure for a long time — for some of us, more than half our lives — and it’s strange to think that this era has come to an end.

One thing is certain: we didn’t expect our last robotics season to have so many firsts. We were top of the leaderboard at our first competition of the season, allowing us to become an alliance captain in the elimination rounds for the first time ever. We won that tournament with the help of two hard-working and enthusiastic alliance partners. We received the Inspire Award at the Minnesota State Championship for the first time, half-wondering if we were dreaming as we accepted the trophy and looked back to see a standing ovation from our friends.

Then we traveled to the next levels of competition and it all seemed to speed up. Before we knew it, we were walking into our last judging session. Driving our last robot in its last match. Taking down our team pit area and leaving the venue for the last time, knowing that next time we walked through those doors, we wouldn’t be wearing a Ponytail Posse t-shirt — we would instead be wearing the t-shirt of a FIRST volunteer who was part of something bigger than their own team.

Rose encourages a young robot driver at a community outreach event.

Rose encourages a young robot driver at a community outreach event.

So even though it’s sad to know that we’ll never get to relive those moments, all seven of us are happy to step into the next phase of our journeys. Now we get to be the mentors who make a difference in students’ lives. We’re looking forward to becoming the grandparents who volunteer at robotics events every weekend, pointing to duct-taped robots and saying to each other, “Isn’t it amazing, what kids can do with a little inspiration and creativity?”

Learn more about FIRST programs and find an event in your area.

Rose is living on campus at the University of Minnesota, where she is studying graphic design. In her free time, she will be a mentor for her former coach’s new FIRST Tech Challenge team, Spontaneous Construction, and volunteer at events as often as possible. She is also the new marketing officer for the U of MN FIRST alumni student group, GOFIRST.

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.

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