BY Molly Congdon
CLIFTON PARK— Ellen Yang remembers sitting outside as a kid, staring up at the blue sky watching the clouds quickly moving in different directions. At the time, she believed that the sky was stationary and that Earth was rotating at a rapid pace.
Then, of course, her older sister, Sarah, corrected her and explained that wind was what caused the movement of the cottonlike cumulus puffs.
Science and math have always intrigued her. “There is a certain beauty in how everything works,” Yang said. “Years ago someone had to figure out what now seems like simple concepts.”
Despite her devotion to the left side of the brain, she has also loved English and writing. “People try to categorize themselves with one thing or another, but I think it’s important to find a balance,” Yang said. “It has helped me become a better public speaker and more grounded.”
Now as a junior at Shenendehowa, she has set aside her naïve scientific theories, and was elected by her peers as one of three co-captains for the robotics team — Team 20, The Rocketeers, which is in the midst of build season preparing to compete against other schools’ robots in the 2015 Robotics Competition of FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a nonprofit that promotes science education for youth.
Science in the family
She has resided in Clifton Park her entire life. “I’m a true Clifton Parker at heart,” Yang joked.
Science runs deep in her family. Her father, Patrick Yang, is a chemical engineer and her mother, Lili Kul, is a virologist. Also, her older sister, Sarah, is currently studying chemical engineering at Columbia University.
In her free time, she plays violin in the Skidmore College orchestra. “I’m very passionate about music,” Yang said. “It’s a huge part of my life.”
She is fascinated with scientific breakthroughs, keeps up with current events, can’t wait for magazines such as “The Economist” and “Time” to appear in her mailbox and loves the comfort of Taiwanese food. “It’s such a big part of our culture,” Yang said. “I’ve told my mom that the food warms your heart.”
It seems fitting that one of her greatest influences is one of the greatest female scientific minds of all time — Marie Curie, the French physicist famous for her work on radioactivity, a two-time winner of the Nobel Prize who broke down boundaries within spheres of science that are heavily saturated with men. “She is one of my biggest role models,” Yang said. “She made such great contributions within a male-dominated field.
Yang joined the robotics team in her freshman year of high school. Some of her friends had been members of the team, so she decided to go to a meeting to check it out and was immediately hooked. She became part of the animation team. That year the open prompt was to take a myth and put a spin on it. Yang and the rest of her team constructed an anime of the Greek myth of Icarus, who ignored the warnings of his father, Daedalus, and flew too close to the sun. Its heat melted the wings he’d built of feathers and wax, causing him to fall into the sea.
The spin within the animation involved penguins. “We had them trapped in a tower and used various methods to escape until they found their final escape route,” Yang said. “It was a lot more complex than I thought it would be.” They won the Underground Society of Animators creativity award that year.
“It was such a welcoming community, there was a sense of inclusion for people from all different backgrounds,” Yang said. “It wasn’t just Team 20, it was many other teams and the community at large.”
This year, she will be taking on an array of duties including administrative work, helping out the mechanical team, running and organizing meetings and handling award submissions.
Team 20 takes up a great deal of her time: When the school day is over she works with the robotics team for three hours, plus six more hours on the weekend. Even the off-season is time-consuming because Team 20 is always doing community demonstrations and preparing for the next season in any way that it can.
“The community demonstrations are great; we get to go out and share what we’ve done,” Yang said. “You never know when you’re going to make an impact.”
The theme of this year’s game, Recycle Rush, is unlike others the team has experienced. “There are more scoring possibilities, but the playing field is also more crowded,” Yang said. “There is some uncertainty is year, but that also allows creativity. The best results can come from letting a team’s imagination run wild.”
The goal of the FIRST Robotics Competition is not only to motivate students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, but also to instill skills that will come in handy outside of high school. “Robotics has changed my life,” Yang said. “I was shy and unsure, but with the guidance from student leaders I became confident, assertive and a better leader and teacher. I’m a more well-rounded person.”
BY Molly Congdon