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Building toward the future

Nonprofit: Zonta Club of Santa Clarita Valley funds robotics grant

Posted: March 6, 2010 10:02 p.m.
Updated: March 7, 2010 4:55 a.m.

SCV Zonta Club member Sue Peterson, right, and Hart High student Kani Ebner, left, test out their robot after it was built and programmed.

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Santa Clarita Valley Zonta Club President Cynthia A. Kittle, clad in a smart black-and-white dress with high-heeled black shoes, was on the floor with a yard stick, measuring distances around an obstacle course taped to the carpet.

Arroyo Seco Junior High School student Jovana Fitzgerald recorded her findings.

At a nearby yellow-covered table, a retired HR manager for an aerospace firm, and the public information officer for the Santa Clarita Valley's largest school district, were bent over small Lego pieces while an 8-year-old read them directions.

"One of those, and this, and these guys," directed Rancho Pico Junior High School student Taylor Reid.

The race to build, activate and program a Lego robot, then successfully maneuver it around the obstacle course, promised to be a time-consuming affair.

But there was no dismay in the room, just laughter and some good-natured teasing as the women learned from their young overseers - who had, in turn, acquired their robot-building skills because of a grant from Zonta.

Thirty-nine girls have enjoyed, and learned from, the robotics program funded by Zonta since the grant was awarded in May 2009, said Janine Fairall, education director for the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clarita Valley.

The grant purchased Lego Mindstorms kits with the aim of encouraging girls in their studies of math and science.

"This is exactly what Zonta tries to do - put money and volunteer support behind girls and projects to help them," said Kittle, senior regional counsel for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

The robotics program is "beneficial for our girls to learn about math and science in a non-school structure," Fairall said. Computer programming is among the skills involved in the program.

The lessons are more than basic math, problem solving and teamwork, she said.

"They learn from their failures. Failure is a key aspect of moving forward. You need to fail to succeed."

Learning life skills
Some basic life skills are also learned in the process of building and operating a robot, said Kelly Dell, 13, an Arroyo Seco Junior High School student who's been involved with the program for about a month.

"I know a lot more about being patient," she said. "All the parts and putting them together - it teaches responsibility."

The girls "learned how to work with each other - listening and learning," Kelly said.

Kani Ebner, a 16-year-old Hart High School student who participated last summer and serves as an adviser for the robotics program now, said she learned "how to build things and how to use computers programming the robots."

Ebner programmed the most-remarked-over robot at the club that Thursday - a robot that plays "rock paper scissors." The robot's program drives three separate motors.

Budget cuts
It was at a Zonta meeting in January that Fairall and some of the girls in the robotics program presented their accomplishments with the grant money and invited the women to come visit at the club and team up with the girls for the contest.

Zonta has been a strong supporter of the Boys & Girls Club through the years, said Jim Ventress, chief professional officer of the nonprofit.

That support is especially valued now, when the club faces severe budget cuts, he said.

Founded in 1968, the Santa Clarita Valley organization serves more than 2,700 youngsters at its facilities in Newhall, Canyon Country and Val Verde.

Over the past two years it has seen its budget shrink from $1.7 million to $1.3 million and has cut staff from 42 to 31, Ventress said.

The auction fundraiser, from which it derives much of its budget, collected $400,000 two years ago but just $235,000 last year, he said.

Among the activities the club sponsors are field trips to the Walt Disney Concert Hall and other cultural sites, as well as to Legoland and other entertainment sites, Ventress said.

"It's not your old Boys Club," he said.

Fairall said the Newhall club's computer lab offers digital-arts education programs including video production, music production, photo editing, claymation and stop-motion video.

Her education program, which involves 50-60 youngsters, teaches college and career preparation and team leadership. She coordinates homework and contacts parents on behalf of students if needed.

Back to the competition
On the floor of the clubhouse, the 95-minute window to build, program and race the robots was drawing to a close. Teams were still adjusting their programs.

At the last minute, one robot successfully navigated the obstacle course and shot across the finish line, winning the competition.
"It was very exciting for everyone," Fairall said.

The winning team was made up of Kelly Dell, Ally Ebner, 11, Jovana Fitzgerald, 13, Kittle and Zonta member Karen Maleck-Whiteley.

"I was surprised the robot made it through the course that fast," Jovana said. "I thought it would take more tries."


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