By Frances Nevill
Caitlin “Caiti” Lahue, born and raised in Asheville, competes in robotics, practices fencing and dreams of attending MIT and one day becoming an engineer. As if that wasn’t enough to keep this 17 year-old busy, mentoring youth and introducing the next generation to math and science remains a top priority. WNC Woman spent time getting to know this up-and-coming leader.
Tell us about your robotics team.
I am a part of a group called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRST is a national robotics program with chapters and teams all around the world. The local FIRST team is called the AsheBots. We have about 15 students ranging from 13 – 18. I am the lead programmer and I work extensively with a program called LabView, a visual programming system. Our team competes against other robotics teams and the goal is to help kids become more interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects.
The robot your team has developed does something kind of interesting.
Yes! It propels Frisbees! It’s about 30 inches by 20 inches and it has a hopper and spinning wheels to stabilize it. It can shoot a Frisbee across the room.
How did you get into robotics?
I’ve been interested in engineering for a long time now. When I learned that there was a robotics team—not assigned to a high school,that home-schooled kids like myself could join—I wanted to be a part of it. I had already participated in Lego MindStorm and Odyssey of the Mind. So I joined and I’ve loved being a part of it.
When you were a very small child, were you interested in this sort of thing?
I did enjoy playing with Legos. But when I was little, I used to say I wanted to open a store. But I was always building all sorts of contraptions.
Do you think being homeschooled has enabled you to spend more time on your interests?
Absolutely. Because I was homeschooled, I could spend more time on the things I loved. When Ifound out I really enjoyed engineering, and specifically considering this as a career, we bought a bridge-building kit and I spent time building all sorts of bridges. I could pursue these side projects because I didn’t have to stick to a rigid curriculum.
You are the only girl on your robotics team. Tell us a little about that experience.
I have pretty much been the only girl on a lot of teams I have worked with. So, it’s the only way I have known things. Once they see how serious I am and they see what I can do, I am accepted as one of the engineering people. When I go to competitions, there are more girls competing. And I have met many and it’s been fun to see them again year after year at competitions. Many of the girls I meet like engineering and some will pursue it as a career, but there are others that are interested in business as well.
What are some ways parents and teachers can encourage today’s young girls to get more involved with STEM subjects?
Expose them to it. Some girls might think they can’t do it, but once you actually give a girl a robot and let her try it, she will find it’s not that hard and it can actually be fun. If they are exposed to things like Legos from an early age they might find they love it more than anything else in the world.
Mentoring youth is very important to you, tell us about how you reach out to younger kids?
I help kids through Lego Mindstorm. I kind of show them the ropes. I don’t do the work for them, but I help teach them to think things through on their own. I mainly mentor middle-school-aged kids. One girl I mentored discovered she really loves programming and so now she really wants to stick with it. I find that so cool.
What are some things robotics has taught you?
That so many more things are possible than I ever thought before. When you start out in programming, you have all these unconnected bits and you put them into robots and then you have now made the robot move, and in our case, shoot Frisbees. We had one climb up a pyramid. It was just amazing to me that you could take something that wasn’t a solid, that was just ones and zeros and turn it into action. So many things are possible.
Being an Asheville native, share with our readers what you love about your town.
Asheville is so amazing because of all the opportunities here. You have so many different people coming together in one place. Stereotypes don’t really matter here. You can do whatever you set your mind to and everyone will say “that’s cool” and actually help you do it. The people in Asheville are also so nice. I could walk into any store and strike up a conversation with anyone. Usually people stay in their own little world, but here, I find you can really talk to anyone. And it’s such a beautiful place, too. The environment here is truly amazing. I love the mornings after it’s rained through the night and you see these clouds of fog in the morning. It’s so beautiful here.
What would you say to someone reading this who might be interested in signing up for a robotics team?
You should sign up even if you have no experience in programming or building things. You should come and join us. Everyone will help you learn. Even if you don’t end up working on a robot, we need people to help with fundraising and the spirit aspect of it. I do a lot of public speaking, which I never thought I’d have to do. I thought I’d be sitting behind a laptop the entire time and now I have to go out into the world and explain what I’ve done. I think signing up would be the best because there is so much variation in what you’ll do and many interests apply to this field. Even if you end up not liking engineering, you’ll learn something from the process. It will expand your horizons.
For more information about the AsheBots or the FIRST program visit ashe-bots.org.
Frances Nevill is a freelance writer who writes about the people and places that make the southeast unique.