By Keely Savoie
When she built her first robot as a toddler, Claire Houston ’19 was just following in the family tradition. Her father, an IBM programmer, had already inculcated her older sister into the world of engineering. Houston was simply the next in line.
“My older sister got her first robotics kits when I was two,” she said. “When I was three or four, I built my first robot with her.”
That fearless get-in-and-do-it attitude fuels all of Houston’s endeavors. Now a first-year student at Mount Holyoke College, Houston helps lead a robotics program at the local Girl Scouts council, works as youth leader in a nearby church, plays in the English Handbell Ensemble, takes a 20-credit course-load, and maintains an active social life in the community that she has come to value so deeply.
“There was something calling me here to Mount Holyoke, and I am really glad I followed that call,” she said. “Every day this is where I want to be. The people, the community, the classes—I couldn’t imagine a better place to be.”
After discovering a passion for building robots, Houston joined FIRST LEGO League Jr. at eight years old. FIRST is designed to introduce STEM concepts and skills to six- to nine-year-olds.
“FIRST was founded under the principle that if a musician can inspire a kid to sing, and a basketball star can inspire a kid to go into sports, why can’t an engineer inspire a kid to go into STEM?” she said.
When she aged out of the junior league, Houston moved to the next level, which involved annual competitions between teams. And by the time she graduated from high school, she was instructing junior FIRST students in the program that she had brought to her school.
And when she graduated from high school and moved on to Mount Holyoke, Houston reinvigorated the local Girl Scout council’s nascent FIRST program, taking on the technical side of teaching skills to the students.
Their first robot competition was in December, and while her team did not win any awards, they made a strong showing.
“They had a really good time and scored pretty highly. It was so gratifying to see them build their skills and knowledge,” said Houston. “A big part of this program is just bringing together the girls who are interested in STEM. That’s what made it so exciting for me when I was in school, when I was like, ‘These are my people.’ ”
In one of her early FIRST design competitions, Houston’s team solved a farm’s energy problem by replacing expensive and inefficient heaters that were maintained to prevent water troughs from freezing with a cheap pump that recaptured heat from the manure pile.
Later, Houston analyzed data for the Girl Scouts to develop a case study on the success of its new Digital Cookie program that enables individual scouts to sell cookies through their personal web pages.
“It was thousands of pages of data,” she said. “They put together a report on the Digital Cookie program, and included in there was the case study I put together based on my Girl Scout council.
Now in her second semester at Mount Holyoke, Houston keeps her days full between her school, work, and social life.
“Claire is a superstar,” said Michael Penn, professor of religion, and Houston’s advisor. Calling her a “wickedly smart, talented writer,” Penn noted that Houston’s primary talent is in her ability to take technically complicated material and make it relevant and accessible.
“She really crosses that divide between technical work and humanities,” he said. “She refuses to be pigeonholed.”
The multi-talented Houston hasn’t determined what her ultimate career path will be. She does know that for now she wants to continue working with young students to teach them about robotics and engineering.
“Teaching these students for an hour and a half a week is so awesome,” she said. “They are so excited and so enthusiastic you can’t help but want to spend time with them, watching them grow as they learn things, figure things out, and get better.”
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