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Girls from Torah Prep boast sweet scores with ‘Candy’ tech creation

A group of nine teenagers from a St. Louis day school in grades five through eight advanced to an elite robotics competition.

The Torah Prep robotics team, from left: Adviser Bella Bloom with students Basya Miller, Tzivi Glickfield, Rachelli Goldenhersh, Tzofia Bloom, Chaya Kass, Chana Sasportas, Nili Schuss, Malka Rosner and Esti Botuck. Photo by Bil Motchan,
The Torah Prep robotics team, from left: Adviser Bella Bloom with students Basya Miller, Tzivi Glickfield, Rachelli Goldenhersh, Tzofia Bloom, Chaya Kass, Chana Sasportas, Nili Schuss, Malka Rosner and Esti Botuck. Photo by Bil Motchan,

“Candy” is a colorful LEGO-clad robot about the size of a toaster. She’s small but powerful. That’s also an apt description for her creators, the robotics team at Torah Prep School of St. Louis.

The group consists of nine teenagers in grades five through eight. Last month, they accomplished an unlikely feat, advancing to the elite robotics competition known as the 2024 FIRST Championship. The international event is an annual celebration of the arts for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and innovation.

Torah Prep’s robotics team made it to Houston in April for the world championship. To put their accomplishment in perspective, the competition began with 58,000 teams, and 152 qualified for the finals. They were among a handful of all-girl groups in the world championship and quite likely the only Orthodox Jewish team. Their journey required skill, confidence and a few lucky breaks.

‘There’s a problem and a theme’

Making it to the finals is highly coveted by robotics teams worldwide. The season begins in the fall, but everything heats up in January when regional competition is held. Torah Prep’s team took second place and advanced to the state finals, which were scheduled on a Saturday. So the team declined to participate because flipping the switch to power up “Candy” would be a prohibition of observing Shabbat, when Jewish tradition says work is not allowed.

Fortunately, the organizers came up with a suitable option: switching to a Friday and modifying the judging.

“They were amazing and wonderful,” said Bella Bloom, the team’s coach. “They embodied all the wonderful qualities of acceptance and promotion of various people. They sent referees to our location. The rest was done on Zoom. And the girls did amazing, and they scored enough points to qualify for the national competition.”

Torah Prep Robotics Team, St. Louis
“Candy“ the robot. Credit: Courtesy.

During each phase of the competition, teams are judged on robot design, programming and teamwork. They also need to be creative, according to team member Tzivi Glickfield.

“There’s a problem and a theme,” said Glickfield, 13. “You have to come up with a solution within that theme. This year’s theme is art. The solution we came up with was scuba diving, which is very hard to share. So, we came up with an augmented reality scuba-diving mask that would project that it’s waterproof. We were also judged on core values. Those are things that the robotics uses to learn and grow from the experience.”

After breezing through the state competition came another hiccup. The national competition in California was also on a Saturday. So the team declined to participate again. Fortunately, in March, the Torah Prep team was invited to Jefferson City to compete for the State Cup, and they won. They did so well that they qualified for an open slot in the world championship.

‘They programmed the whole thing’

Torah Prep’s Cinderella story ended without a win at the world championship. The girls still felt like winners and said they were proud of their accomplishments.

“It was really cool and fun to be able to see people from all over the world,” said Chana Sasportas, 14. “It was a little bit intimidating. We walked in and it was like, oh my gosh, because we went from small competition inside a gymnasium to a huge world championship.”

The squad performed well throughout the competition levels because they were prepared and poised. They also had the benefit of a seasoned coach, who knows the drill after eight seasons. Bloom said the girls did all the heavy lifting.

Torah Prep Robotics Team, St. Louis
The Torah Prep robotics team. Credit: Courtesy/Robotics Team.

“They really shine in their teamwork,” Bloom said. “They were on top of things, and they work together amazingly well. If they got stuck, I helped them along. But they built this robot on their own. They programmed the whole thing. They designed all the attachments. They figured out the plan. It was their baby.”

The experience also demonstrated that girls can excel in a field that is predominately male-dominated. Career specialist Zippia reports that only 4% of robotics systems engineers are women. Glickfield said she might consider advanced study or possibly a career in robotics.

“My mother works in tech as a software engineer,” she said. “She does have women co-workers, but they’re mostly men. And in the robotics competition, we would go and see different people’s projects, and it would be, boy team, boy team, boy team with one girl, boy team, boy team, boy team.”

Diversity of thought fuels innovation, Bloom said, and a tech field like robotics could benefit from more women engineers.

“Females bring a slightly different angle, and I think it’s important to have males and females in engineering because when you design a product, you need various angles, various eyes to look at it, and females bring a different perspective.”

This story originally appeared in the St. Louis Jewish Light.

Torah Prep Robotics Team, St. Louis
The Torah Prep robotics team, from left: Adviser Bella Bloom with students Esti Botuck, Chana Sasportas, Tzofia Bloom, Rachelli Goldenhersh, Basya Miller, Nili Schuss, Chaya Kass, Tzivi Glickfield and Malka Rosner. Credit: Courtesy/Robotics Team.
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