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 this weekend. For this all-girl team of 7th graders from Julian Middle School, winning the VEX Robotics Excellence Award required commitment, ingenuity, teamwork, creativity 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. They rose to the top not only because they persisted through challenges and successfully competed in a series of “Tower Takeover” games, but also because they became close friends who collaborated on the team roles of builder, coder and journalers.

Three of the girls –Kate, Isabel and Lily—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 Isabel. Lily 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,” added Lily’s 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,” Lauren said.

Battle of the Bots also recognized:

  • “Bothersome Bards” from Julian Middle School and “Mr. Patel’s Enchiladas” from Glenside Middle School won as Tournament Champions.
  • “Honky Donkees” from Brooks Middle School and “Hailey’s Turtles” from Glenside Middle School won as Tournament Finalists.
  • “Mr. Patel’s Enchiladas” from Glenside won the Robot Skills Award. “Khaos” from Julian won the Design Award.
  • “Chunk” from Julian won the Judges Award. “Patriot” from Brooks won the Innovate Award.
  • “DiNope” from Julian won the Build Award. “Hailey’s Turtles” from Glenside won the Think Award.

Congratulations to all teams who competed in the 2020 Battle of the Bots. A big thank you to the volunteers, judges, staff, coaches, mentors, parents, donors, and especially to our generous event sponsors—Aria Group and iDesign Solutions—for helping to make this event possible.