It took a lot more than luck for the “Lucky Llamas” to take home the top honor at the Battle of the Bots middle school robotics competition last weekend.

For this all-girl team of 7th graders from Julian Middle School, winning the VEX Robotics Excellence Award required commitment, ingenuity, teamwork and a willingness to “fail forward” — all skills that will position them for success as they plan ahead for high-tech careers.

The five girls — Kate Boveri, Malini Datta-Nemana, Lauren Gullo, Isabel Retterer and Lily Zinthefer — spent five months designing, coding and building their robot this year after joining the Julian VEX Robotics League, an after-school program sponsored by the Oak Park Education Foundation and coached by middle school teachers and high school mentors. Their final robot, playfully named Lucy 2.0, is “100 percent different” from the one they first built and tested — an evolution they painstakingly documented in three different journals.

The team successfully competed in a series of “Tower Takeover” games to hone their skills. Along the way they became close friends who collaborated on the team roles of builder, coder and journalers. Three of the girls    Boveri, Retterer and Zinthefer — first joined the robotics program last year as sixth graders.  They said they really wanted more girls to join robotics, so they recruited two more friends this year — along with a collection of stuffed llamas they brought to the tournaments as “lucky” mascots.

“I’m always building robots and I’ve always been interested in robotics — but I didn’t want to be the only girl on the team,” said Retterer. Zinthefer felt the same way, but she is inspired by her mom, who works as a software architect in the male-dominated world of computer science. “That’s why programs like these are so important,” said her mom, Laura Zinthefer. “Young women need to see these careers as possible and not be discouraged.” 

During the Battle of the Bots competition, which drew 42 teams from six middle schools in the Chicagoland Robotics League, the Lucky Llamas landed in second place after the qualifying matches but faced their own discouraging moment when they had to publicly seek an “alliance” with another team before the elimination matches. They asked two lower-ranked teams to form an alliance and were surprised when both teams turned them down. They later laughed off the moment, recalling the previous year when nearly every team turned them down.

 “You really have to put in the work, but it’s like they say, failure helps you more than anything,” Gullo said. 

Battle of the Bots also recognized other top teams with the following awards: “Bothersome Bards” of Julian Middle and “Mr. Patel’s Enchiladas” of Glenside Middle School in Glendale Heights won the final match for tournament champion trophy; “Honky Donkees” from Brooks Middle and “Hailey’s Turtles” from Glenside Middle won as Tournament Finalists; “Mr. Patel’s Enchiladas” won Robot Skills; the Design Award went to “Khaos from Julian Middle; “Chunk” from Julian won the Judges Award; the Innovate Award went to the Patriot team from Brooks Middle; the Build Award went to “DiNope” from Julian; “Hailey’s Turtles” won the Think Award for programming; and “Guac-A-Taters” from Heritage Middle in Brooks won the Sportsmanship Award.

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