The young women in the Ponytail Posse are future engineers, entrepreneurs, and graphic designers. After representing St. Paul in robotic competitions for the past nine years, the young women from Mounds View High School have finished their final season, and the majority of the team is heading off to college. The girls are ready for their futures in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), but they know not all girls in their district have access to extracurricular STEM activities like their award-winning, all-female robotics team. to fund the creation of more robotics teams in their district.

Despite progress, women and girls remain underrepresented in STEM fields. According to the 2018 Status of Women and Girls, young women make up only 20 percent of the 23-25 year old STEM workforce, with African American, African Immigrant, American Indian, Latina, and young women with disabilities making up less than 1 percent. Recognizing these disparities, the team created the Ponytail Posse Foundation to offer young girls the opportunity to participate in extracurricular STEM activities while in high school, in the hopes they can continue in the field after graduation.

How They Started

The Ponytail Posse team meets weekly to work on their projects: building robots and bonding as a team. Back in 2009, when they were in elementary school, they started in FIRST LEGO League (FLL), a program created by the nonprofit For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Rose Lam, a senior member of the team, believes that their time in the Posse has impacted every member’s career path and post-secondary plans, whether they go on to pursue STEM, study engineering, or explore entrepreneurship. “Our robotics experience has given us the opportunity to explore and find our passions,” said Rose, a Posse member for nine years.

Most recently, the Posse traveled to Detroit for the FIRST World Championship of 2018. Participating in the FIRST Tech Challenge with more than 100 other teams, the Posse got to show off their robot Stacy, who was built to stack foam cubes in a scoring area. Running better than she had at any previous World Championships, Stacy’s performance met many of the team members’ robotic goals.

Meeting teams from all over the world was a thrill for the team. “Although there were some language barriers, there was still communication through the universal language of robotics,” Rose said. As the team looked back on all they have accomplished through FIRST, they became motivated to do more than just robotics.

Giving Back through a DAF

When they learned in 2017 that only one of the eight elementary schools in their Mounds View district had an established robotics program, the Ponytail Posse opened a donor advised fund at the Women’s Foundation. Because they were lucky enough to attend the only school in the district that had a team, they wanted other students to share the same opportunities: to experience STEM outside the classroom, travel, create, collaborate, and problem-solve as a team. “We recognized that participation in the Ponytail Posse changed our lives and understood that others would benefit,” said Rose.

Hoping to ensure that every student in their district has the opportunity to join a FIRST team through a sustainable program within their school by 2024, the Ponytail team spent the past summer fundraising and meeting with principals. So far, they’ve received support from not just individuals, but foundations and corporations, including Pace Industries, FIRST LEGO Foundation, Magnetic, TCMaker, and LKT Labs. In year one of their 8-year plan, the team helped elementary schools find program coordinators, pay registration fees, and all the other tasks needed to establish a robotics program. As a result of the Ponytail Posse Foundation, in just one year 24 new FIRST LEGO League Jr. (FLL Jr.) teams formed in the district, allowing more than 90 students from kindergarten to third grade to participate for the first time.

What’s more, after seeing the impact of the FIRST programs, even non-participating schools established their own teams, bringing the total number of new FLL Jr. groups to 58. Funds from the Ponytail Posse Foundation also helped the girls host three FIRST LEGO League Jr. exhibitions. Designed for the new teams, the exhibitions allow the participants to demonstrate what they’ve learned.

As the members of the Ponytail Posse head off to college, they’re confident the impact of their work will be felt for years to come. Inspired to continue their support, the Posse will focus on volunteering within the FIRST community and spreading robotics in their school district. The Women’s Foundation is honored to host the Ponytail Posse Foundation’s donor advised fund, supporting the girls as leaders in bringing STEM to schools.

If you’re interested in learning more about opening a donor advised fund at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, contact Amanda Storm Schuster, Vice President of Advancement, at amanda@wfmn.org | 612-236-1830.

By Erika Idrovo-Cuesta, 2017-18 Wenda Weekes Moore Intern

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