True programming: CIS students coach Girl Scouts Lego Robotics team

Being True Blue is about finding innovative ways to use existing concepts. To expand your circle so that others may grow and flourish with you. TU students Sarah Otto and Saranya Varanasi have shown their True Blue identity doing just that.

Legos have been a mainstay in toy collections for decades. A singular concept — basic plastic bricks that fit together to transform ideas into creations — equals infinite hours of imaginative play for children of all ages.  Evolving from toy box to tech, Legos now introduce students to an essential skillset that can lay the foundation for a future career. In 1998, the company debuted Lego Mindstorms, robots that merge computer programming technology with the trademark brick-building system. Students around the world use the Lego Mindstorms technology as part of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League groups.

Otto, a junior, and Varanasi, a senior, are computer information systems (CIS) majors who helped a group of Tulsa-area fifth grade Girl Scouts prepare for a FIRST Lego League competition in November. “I worked on Lego Mindstorm robots when I was a fifth grader,” said Varanasi, “and I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my first exposure to very basic programming concepts.” She says that introduction sparked an interest in coding, which translated to her choosing CIS as a major.

Otto adds that she was once a Girl Scout and thought it would be fun to help the team prepare for the competition. “Programming is the future,” she says, “and it’s great that we’re working on getting these girls into programming so early.” Through forward thinking and investment in the future, both women show their True Blue colors.

Competing teams select a challenge and program various missions in an effort to complete as much of the obstacle course as possible in two-and-a-half minutes. Otto and Varanasi’s team chose water conservation as its challenge and spent hours programming the robot to complete a series of obstacles from fixing a water filter to making rain fall. Each obstacle requires a separate code set to direct the robot’s actions. As Otto explains, “There are a lot of critical thinking skills involved. The girls have to think about a project from start to finish, which is something that’s huge for us in our CIS classes.”

Varanasi says that participating in activities like this makes CIS come alive for students. “This is programming that’s accessible to fifth-grade girls. If they enjoy this, it can lead to them wanting to learn more complex coding.”

Learning how to develop patience, troubleshoot problems and work as a team also represent skills cultivated through participating in the group. “I’ve seen these girls grow and work better together as a team, allowing each other to do the different steps in the process: writing the program, working the code and running the robot,” says Otto. “It’s been neat to see them understand the concepts and learn along the way.”

Varanasi says she and Otto are learning right alongside the team. “The FIRST Lego League has a set of core values and one that stuck out to me as a mentor to these girls is that we all learn together,” she says. “We don’t have all of the answers. Sometimes we will run a program multiple times and it keeps going wrong, and we can’t figure out why it’s going wrong, either. But, we have fun working together and learning as a team.”

“One of my biggest takeaways is developing my own skills as a programmer,” says Otto. “Helping the girls learn how to troubleshoot and think about their program from start to finish has helped me in writing my own programs.”

Otto and Varanasi continue to work with the team once a month as they prepare for another round of competitions in the fall.

Being True Blue means encouraging and helping others. As Otto and Varanasi learned, when you give you also receive. Leaning in and serving others always teaches you something about yourself so that everyone benefits. Check out the True Blue community today and see where the True You fits in by visiting campus.