Native American robotics team from rural reservation chases tech dreams at GeekWire Bash

Eagle Power, the FIRST LEGO League team from Nespelem, Wash. Clockwise from top left: Anoki Somday, Chante BearEagle, Luke Yazzie, school aide Gabe Aubertin, Natalie Vieira, Lola Yazzie and teacher Christina Christopherson. (Photo courtesy of Eagle Power)

The town of Nespelem, Wash., located on the Colville Tribal Reservation about 4 1/2 hours northeast of Seattle, is home to about 230 people. There is a gas station, a post office and a school that serves pre-school through 8th grade.

And there is a robotics team.

In this small, rural community, away from the bustle and boom created by giant tech companies in growing cities like Seattle, the reach of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is still important, as kids are being presented with the opportunity to learn skills which could make them more successful down the road.

Some of those kids will be in Seattle on Thursday to compete in the inaugural GeekWire Robotics Cup at the GeekWire Bash. The FIRST LEGO League event is being hosted by FIRST Washington, a statewide non-profit that inspires young people through mentor-based robotics programs to pursue STEM careers.

“It’s pretty fun. Building the stuff and programming,” said Luke Yazzie, an 11-year-old sixth grader from Nespelem who will be competing with teammates at the Bash. “I like the coding.”

Christina Christopherson has been teaching math and science for about four years in the one-building Nespelem School District. With 40 students in middle school grades six through eight, her biggest class is 15 kids.

Last summer, she was approached by Erin McCallum, president of FIRST Washington, to put together a robotics team. Christopherson got trained, got her team going in October and in December traveled to Wenatchee, Wash., for their first competition.

“We are in a very rural area. We don’t get a lot of exposure to do a lot of different things,” Christopherson told GeekWire by phone this week. “My population is I think 98 percent Native American here at the school. … This is a pretty awesome thing.”

Nespelem, Wash., on the Colville Indian Reservation, is at the red pin. (Google Maps screen grab)

Located in the heart of the Colville Reservation, most of the parents of Nespelem students work for the tribe in one department or another. Unemployment in Okanogon and Ferry counties, where the bulk of the reservation is located, is 8.1 and 11.9 percent, respectively.

Kids grow up playing traditional sports together, and basketball is really big. For high school, they will travel south to the Grand Coulee Dam School District and Lake Roosevelt High School.

The LEGO League club meets for an hour, four days a week after school. At the GeekWire Bash, Eagle Power, as the Nespelem kids have dubbed their team, will compete against more than 20 other elementary and middle school teams from schools across Western Washington. Autonomous robots, built with LEGOs and programmed by the kids, will be put through paces under a theme called “Into Orbit,” in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.

“We’re just still on baby steps,” Christopherson said of her team. “We need to get more robots. We only have one school robot. I own a robot and then actually one of the students has a robot. So we need to get more robots for our school because it is kind of challenging to basically work off of two robots.”

Without the shopping resources nearby like some communities, kids and teachers turn to a familiar place no matter where you live.

“Amazon,” Christopherson said. “Everything we pretty much get is ordered online. And it’s not a two-day thing, it’s a three-day thing. We don’t get anything overnight, it takes three days no matter what.”

Kids building autonomous robots as part of a club that will hopefully prepare them to work in Washington state’s tech economy someday are getting their robot parts delivered by the biggest tech company in the state, a leader in autonomous innovation. It almost seems scripted.

A grave marker for the legendary Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce, who is buried in Nespelem, Wash., on the Colville Tribal Reservation. (Flickr Photo / Keith Ewing)

McCallum said the goal in hosting the Robotics Cup at the Bash is to build awareness and exposure in the tech community about FIRST Washington and its commitment to bring STEM and computer science to kids all across the state.

FIRST is in 134 school districts out of 295 in Washington. But in a lot of those districts, they may only have teams in certain schools. The strategic vision is to bring the programs into every school building, to give every student the opportunity.

In a remote location like Nespelem, it takes effort.

“It’s very inspiring but it requires a lot of work and commitment on our part in identifying a teacher who is committed to bringing these type of programs to their students. Christina is one of those teachers,” McCallum said. “What is so inspiring for me is that when we do identify those teachers who say, ‘You know what, we are in a small rural community, we may not have a lot of industry around us, but my kids are just as capable of learning these skills and I want to help get them to where they need to be in the future.’”

Members of Eagle Power range in grade from fifth to eighth. They’re enthusiastic about their teacher and what they’re learning, and they’re even providing outreach to the community. They’ll be participating in an upcoming Earth Day pow wow designed to show the public what they can design.

Chante BearEagle is 12, and the sixth grader said she’s been working with LEGOs for about five years. She wants to be an artist or a scientist.

Anoki Somday, a 13-year-old eighth grader, wants to be a graphic designer, an engineer or a product designer, she told GeekWire, and her teammate Natalie Vieira said “programming the robots is awesome.”

The kids also couldn’t help laughing when asked if their robot had a name. “Fre sha vaca do” they kept saying. Clearly the internet works just fine in Nespelem.

At the CenturyLink Field Events Center where the Bash will be held, the kids will be immersed in the atmosphere of the annual geek festival, featuring various sports tournaments, game trucks, VR exhibitions and much more.

Christopherson admitted that venturing outside the tribal community can sometimes be hard. The kids are nervous about seeing so many teams in Seattle.

“We don’t see very many people outside of our community, so I think sometimes speaking to adults and just being put in that big environment is a little daunting,” Christopherson said. “Us going to go do this, it’s going to be like, ‘Oh, how many teams are there? What?’”

Eagle Power will get in the ring against the likes of the Rocket Rovers and LEGO Lassies, Cosmic Builders or Cyber Cheetah, and a host of other teams from across Washington state. For FIRST Washington, the competitions are designed to show off teamwork and camaraderie, whether students are from an urban or suburban community where resources are generally more plentiful, or a smaller town like Nespelem.

“These kids have the capability to go pro just like their counterparts,” McCallum said.

GeekWire Robotics Cup competition will kick off at the family friendly GeekWire Bash at 5 p.m. on Thursday. General admission and kids tickets are available here.

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