Getting up early isn’t usually an activity that teenagers do readily, but on Sunday, June 24th at 6:30 am, the four representatives from Girls of Steel – Anna N., Kristina, Caroline, and Claire – were standing excitedly in a CMU parking lot. At about 11 am, after four+ hours of sitting in a van, we finally arrived in our nation’s Capitol, Washington, DC. Eagerly, we clambered out of the car and got changed into our Girls of Steel Rosie t-shirt and went out to lunch.
When the National Advocacy Conference (NAC) started at 1 pm, the speakers started prepping us for our upcoming meetings on Capitol Hill. The first presentations gave basic information about STEM and why it is so important in the workforce. Then Don Bossi, the president of FIRST, gave an excellent presentation on the wonderful impact that FIRST has on the kids that are in it. Following Don Bossi, we heard presentations on the basic structure of US government, the way that bills are passed, and the basic idea of what we were advocating for. As they explained, we would be advocating for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Title IV, Part A. If this crucial portion of ESSA would continue to be supported, then schools across the country, and the 30 plus schools in the greater Pittsburgh area that Girls of Steel members represent, would likely have the opportunity to create their own FIRST robotics teams. After the presentations were over, everybody attending NAC walked over to the US Capitol Building to get individual team pictures and then a whole group photo. Even though the sun was shining directly in our eyes the whole time, it was still fun to take the pictures!
When Monday morning arrived, we were excited and much better rested for another day of the NAC. We learned more about the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which provides funding for after school STEM programs. We also learned about Perkins, which provides funding for post-secondary technology education. Throughout the day, we gathered ideas about how to improve our local and state advocacy efforts from students on FRC teams 1086, 1676, and 1816. During lunch, we played several icebreaker riddles with the team from Wisconsin. After lunch, we heard a panel discussion by two women in the STEM field, Deborah Rigsby and Aissa Canchola. At the end of the day, we had a meeting with the other Pennsylvania team who attended this conference, Horsepower FRC 4991, to practice our talking points for our joint meetings.
The big day was finally here! On Tuesday morning, June 26th, the Girls of Steel woke up early and got dressed in our black suits and light blue collared shirts with our version of Rosie the Riveter carefully embroidered on the left side. We took extra care to be presentable and professional, as we would be meeting members of Congress or their staff on Capitol Hill. The four of us could hardly eat breakfast as butterflies danced in our stomachs in anticipation of the most important day of the trip, the day we met with 4 Congressmen and 2 legislative assistants to our Pennsylvania Senators. Here’s the link to one of the documents we shared at our meetings.
US Congressman Mike Doyle represents the 14th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, the district where 38.6% of the girls on our team live. As we winded through Rayburn building security and the endless tunnels under Rayburn, Longworth, and Cannon House buildings, we finally reached Congressman Doyle’s office in 239 CHOB. Mr. Doyle is the chairman of the bi-partisan Congressional Robotics Caucus and continues to support the Girls of Steel after we met with him last year. Congressman Doyle put huge smiles on our faces by greeting us with, “The world famous Girls of Steel! Welcome!” We entered his office and noticed the Pittsburgh references hanging all over the walls and the Pennsylvania-made candy sitting in glass bowls on his desk. Feeling comfortable in our atmosphere and full of confidence, the Girls of Steel thanked Mr. Doyle for his time and introduced ourselves and our purpose for meeting him. After listening attentively to our brief presentation, the Representative expressed his support of us and, on a more personal note, asked us of each of our parents’ backgrounds. Congressman Doyle proceeded to inform us about the condition of some of our peers living in Pittsburgh and how their backgrounds may not be as fortunate. As he described to Girls of Steel, “I want you to be our lieutenants” in the effort to bring robotics to underserved communities of Pittsburgh. His message ringing in our ears, we left Representative Mike Doyle’s office with newfound confidence and pride.
Next up was Representative Keith Rothfus of the 12th congressional district of PA, in which 38.6% of our girls live. Rothfus’ assistant, Ms. Twinkle Patel, welcomed us again after seeing us last year. We gave introductions and explained what we were advocating for. Although he was in a committee meeting, Congressman Rothfus was very generous to step out and interact with us for a little while. Both Rothfus and Patel were interested in our team and excited about the prospect of robotics helping kids in the district they represent. In this meeting, we talked a lot about the mechanical aspect of robotics, such as welding, and the ability FIRST programs in schools would have to support the number of kids going to technical and trade schools instead of traditional, four-year universities. They were excited to hear that students learn how to weld in Girls of Steel, including one of us representing the team. As Rothfus explained, “We want you to succeed. We need you to succeed. This is what the future has in store for us, and we need STEM skills to make this a better future.” The Girls of Steel is thankful for the time Congressman Rothfus spent with us and his insight into STEM education. With a huge thank you, Girls of Steel left for lunch before our other meetings.
While in the Supreme Court cafeteria, we met with students from Horsepower Team 4991 where we ate lunch together and practiced our presentation for our next three meetings with Congressman Lamb and assistants for Senators Casey and Toomey, which we did together.
The first of those three meetings with Horsepower was with Senator Bob Casey’s policy advisor, Ms. Julia Cinquegrani. She was super nice and welcoming to our teams, and was delighted to hear about what we do and our advocacy efforts for ESSA Title IV, Part A. Cinquegrani was confident that Senator Casey would support our cause, for which we were relieved.
We had a similar meeting with Ms. Halie Craig from Senator Pat Toomey’s office. Once again, Horsepower was able to provide a school-based perspective while we presented the perspective of a team comprised of students from multiple schools. We had a great discussion with Craig, and she even remembered meeting the Girls of Steel from last year. One particular detail stood out: she recalled that we program our robots with the coding language Java! Like Cinquegrani for Senator Casey, Craig was confident that Senator Toomey would support ESSA Title IV, Part A in our benefit: “He doesn’t think that STEM is a partisan issue. There are a lot of partisan issues, but getting kids into STEM isn’t one of them.” We wholeheartedly agreed and said our thanks before leaving to meet Congressman Lamb.
Our next meeting was with the newly elected Congressman Conor Lamb from Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, who represents 20% of the students on Girls of Steel. This was our last meeting with Horsepower, so we made the most of it. Lamb represents all of Horsepower and 11 Girls of Steel students, so he was very vocal in his support of our cause.
Saying goodbye and thanks to Horsepower, Girls of Steel set off to our last meeting of the day. This one was with Representative Mike Kelly of the third congressional district of PA, in which 2.9% of Girls of Steel students live. At first, we met with Mr. Kelly’s assistant, but then the Congressman was kind enough to stop by and talk with us after voting on the House floor. He was openly supportive of our cause and very interested in Girls of Steel as a whole. He talked of his grandchildren and made us feel very comfortable in his office. After the meeting, we expressed our gratitude for his time, and left.
The last event of the day was the reception with all of the FIRST NAC Conference participants, where we met again with 8 members of Horsepower and with some other friends we had made throughout the day. Our big day was finally over, and it was a huge success!
While many of the amazing people that we met at the FIRST NAC Conference packed their bags to leave Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 27th, the Girls of Steel woke up early again and suited up for Capitol Hill! We began our day with a fascinating tour of the U.S. Capitol, led by a staff member from Representative Conor Lamb’s office. We were able to see the old Supreme Court Chamber, learned about the history of the Capitol Rotunda, and more. A highlight of this experience for all of us was being able to watch the House Floor from the gallery as members of Congress gave speeches on what they and their constituents were passionate about.
Next, we walked through the tunnels and back to the Longworth House Building to meet with Representative Lois Frankel, a Florida Congresswoman and the Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. We had an inspiring and productive conversation with her, surrounded by artwork created by the Congresswoman herself! She encouraged us to pursue our goals, saying to us, “Stand up for yourselves. You are not alone. You have a right to follow your dreams, and no one should stand in your way.” We left her office feeling incredibly inspired and driven, along with a bottle of Florida orange juice and a small print of one of her amazing pieces of art.
Looking back on our trip, all of us feel more confident in our skills and more driven to change the future through policy that reflects our mission and shows our elected officials what we’re doing in the local community. We’re looking forward to following up with the new connections that we made, as well as with our prior connections that we furthered through this trip, to continue to promote FIRST and STEM education for students!
Comments from our attendees:
“This trip inspired me in countless ways, opening my eyes to the power of bipartisanship and the influence that we, as high schoolers, can have on policy and the course of the future. It showed me that I can make a change, and that my elected officials are accessible, approachable, and open to hearing my thoughts. This was my second year of NAC, and I saw the impact that building ongoing relationships with one’s elected officials has on making important change in our nation. I’m even more confident in my advocacy skills, and I know for sure that policy is somewhere I want to go with my future!“
“FIRST NAC 2018 was an incredible experience. FIRST had much more of an impressive and widespread impact on Capitol Hill than I could have imagined, which made the meetings more awe-striking and inspiring. More than anything, I learned about the great attitude people in power have towards STEM and the relationships I can build with my representatives. I would not trade my four days in our nation’s capital for anything.”
“NAC was amazing! It gave me so much confidence to talk to our members of congress, all of whom were very nice and listened to what we had to say. I’ve come away from this experience very inspired; I’ve learned that anyone can do anything, no matter how young they are. Anyone who says kids can’t make an impact on the nation right now haven’t witnessed the amazing power that conventions like NAC have.”
“My experience at the NAC was overwhelmingly positive. Before it, I hadn’t realized that I, as an ordinary high school aged constituent, could go talk to my congressman about issues. Now I would like to go back and do more, or at the very least encourage others to do so.”
Finally, we would like to thank our sponsors for giving us the opportunity of a lifetime, as well as the FIRST NAC Coordinators and all of those that took the time to meet with us while on Capitol Hill. FIRST NAC Materials are available here.