If you converted passion into fuel, Danielle Boyer could easily solve an energy crisis. Talking to her about her FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team, Team 4384 Benzene Bots, her team’s incredible special project, EKGAR, and her commitment to STEM accessibility and affordability, you’d never know she’s just seventeen. She discusses “my students” with pride and excitement, and her mix of bubbliness and professionalism when discussing EKGAR and its future is infectious. A recent high school graduate, Danielle is taking a gap year that eschews the normal post-high school, pre-college fare like traveling. She is staying in her home town of Troy, Michigan, where she will mentor her FRC team, along with coaching local FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and FIRST LEGO League Junior (FLLJ) teams, and she wants to start 30 FLLJ, FLL, and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) teams in Troy before the year is out. And that’s just what she has planned FLL for this year—it doesn’t include everything she’s already done, and her plans for outside of FLL.
SOLIDWORKS ran into Danielle at the FIRST Robotics World Championship in Detroit this past April. There, she introduced us to EKGAR (Every Kid Gets A Robot), her team’s special project. EKGAR, the brain child of Benzene Bots team captain and FIRST Dean’s List winner Sanket Nayak, is an affordable alternative to the LEGO Mindstorms kits FLL and FLLJ teams have to buy, and its name is a constant reminder of the project’s goal: increase STEM accessibility, interest, and skill among children in the larger community. And EKGAR works. While a LEGO Mindstorms robot and EKGAR are both buildable, programmable, and fun to use, a single LEGO Mindstorms robot can cost upwards of $500. EKGAR costs less than $50.
“Last year I started our business team and I was coming up with our mission statement,” Danielle explained. “I was thinking about how we can have constant touch points with students, because I’ve seen a lot of outreach where you see the student once and you never talk to them again, you never see them again. So it’s kind of my passion to have these constant touchpoints with students, which is something the EKGAR is.” EKGAR is a way to connect underserved communities with STEM, and make STEM programs like FIRST accessible and sustainable for everyone. Designed in SOLIDWORKS and controlled via an app Sanket created, the majority of the robot is 3D printed with files that can be found publicly in Benzene Bots’ Github page. Using Github is a way to share EKGAR with the larger community, and allows students on the team to collaborate and perfect the robot’s design.
“We have more kids who are interested in CAD as a whole,” Danielle said when I asked about her team’s experience with SOLIDWORKS. Benzene Bots brought in professional CAD users to help them understand SOLIDWORKS and allow everyone on the team to train and have experience with the software. Their use of SOLIDWORKS relates to the larger themes of accessibility, sustainability, and outreach: “I think everyone should have basic skills in everything relating to robotics. Presenting, programming, that type of thing,” Danielle explained. Benzene Bots underclassmen lead the design for the Oakland County Competitive Robotics Association (OCCRA), and by utilizing CAD they were able to complete the 2017 design in one week, and finish the entire robot a week early in their six-week schedule. And with the majority of EKGAR’s components designed in SOLIDWORKS, it’s easier to save time in manufacturing and introduce it to new communities.
Danielle has managed to spread EKGAR’s reach far and wide—her job as business lead, after all, is outreach. When she created Benzene Buddies, an after-school tutoring and STEM education program at her local elementary school, she brought 30 EKGAR robots with her. “The students themselves have said how much they love it. Not just because of the low cost, but because they learned a lot,” Danielle said. “And so the Troy school district reached out to us, and they were like, ‘We want one EKGAR in every single Troy school this year.” According to her, the school district wants to help fund the EKGAR project and its production.
EKGAR’s reach won’t stop with schools in Troy. Danielle plans to take the it to children’s hospitals so kids there can learn about robots — “Our FRC robot is way too big to [be in a hospital],” she said; EKGAR is about the size of a Roomba — and she wants to use EKGAR to expand the reach of Benzene Buddies, and the reach of STEM education in general. “I’m an Ojibwe Native American, and on our reservations there isn’t a lot of access to STEM, or even to good education. In the future, I want to see EKGAR in those reservations with the students, and I want to be able to create an app to train students in how to use EKGAR. That’s my goal for the future,” Danielle said matter-of-factly. “It’s a big goal, but I think it would be so cool.” This year Benzene Bots is partnering with other FRC teams to get EKGAR into high poverty areas, such as Flint, Saginaw, Detroit, and Pontiac, where they can host camps and train the FRC teams to be able to educate their communities about EKGAR. It’s not just about training the students—it’s also about training the teams, so the knowledge and skills that it takes to build and use EKGAR can continue to spread. Danielle’s goal for the summer is to produce eighty EKGARs for these communities.
All of this relates back to sustainability. It’s one thing to create a $50 robot that’s comparable to LEGO Mindstorms. It’s another thing to equip future members of the team with the ability to improve that design. Students will age out, the Benzene Bots team will change, and as a former-team member, future-mentor, Danielle wants to make sure new students can continue to sustain their momentum, both in robotics competitions and in outreach. She’s trying to facilitate relationships with local companies so there can be an actual location for EKGAR camps and new FIRST teams. “You don’t want to just rent a place,” Danielle said. “You want to actually partner with people in each area, so that you can help them and help the people they’re helping.” That’s also her plan for Native American reservations. Right now she’s focusing on local communities, but the spread outwards towards reservations and other parts of Michigan will hopefully take place within the next two years.
With all of her plans and accomplishments, it’s easy to forget that Danielle is part of the demographic with the lowest representation in the STEM fields: women. She’s at the age when girls move away from STEM focuses, and it’s something she’s very aware of and trying to fix. “Last year [Benzene Bots] had one girl,” she said. “This year, we had ten.” Though the number of members on the team hasn’t changed (35), the amount of girls is growing, along with their responsibilities—girls are now becoming team leaders, and one female Benzene Bot, Tele Ocansey, will be nominated for Dean’s List next year, perhaps following in Sanket’s footsteps and winning. Danielle believes there should be more STEM programs for girls, like FRC Team 2834 Bionic Blackhawks, that can help girls feel more at home in the STEM community. And she thinks that having more female mentors will help girls feel comfortable as well. “When girls come into the club and the see almost all male mentors, it’s kind of discouraging. I want [girls] to be able to look forward and think, ‘I could be doing this’ or ‘I could be helping people this way,’” Danielle explained. She is becoming a mentor herself, but she has a goal of recruiting as many girls as she can to diversify her FRC team. Like most of us, she wants to see more women in STEM.
And where will this woman in engineering be in the future? Danielle doesn’t have set plans for after her gap year ends. She’s thinking about attending the University of Michigan, but wants to feel out collegiate possibilities. What she does know is that she wants to pursue both business and electrical engineering, and she wants to create better programs for students. Danielle was homeschooled until her sophomore year of high school, and she’s well aware of the lack of STEM education in the homeschool curriculum. She’s also very interested in branding, and wants to keep connected with FIRST in all of its forms.
Danielle’s love of robotics and her community is reflected in her dedication to FIRST and spreading the gospel of STEM. She loves seeing her students in Benzene Buddies and her teammates in Benzene Bots work together, she loves seeing them improve, knowing their futures are going to be that much brighter. She is rightfully proud of her work and her peers, and she’s proudest of EKGAR. “I think it has the largest scope to be able to help people. And I think it really has a future in the world of STEM, and even in the world of FIRST,” she told me. “And we can help so many people who don’t have access to STEM, who don’t have the funding, and even the people who do.” This past year she hosted a presentation on branding at the FRC Championships, where her team won the Pit Safety Award and added that to their Entrepreneurship Award, Imagery Award, and Engineering Inspiration Award from earlier in the season. And with so many plans and goals for the coming years, it’s clear we’ll be hearing more from Danielle and the lives she’s touched.
Thank you to Danielle Boyer for taking the time to talk about herself, EKGAR, and Benzene Bots. All images in this article are courtesy of Danielle Boyer.