CRYSTAL LAKE – During a group project three years ago, then-sixth-grader Audrey Godsell of Crystal Lake bestowed upon two friends some simple yet unorthodox nicknames – Honeyduke and Papaya.
“And the first fruit nicknames were born,” Godsell said, laughing and looking toward friends Julie Freund and Caroline Rausch – Honeyduke and Papaya, respectively.
Freund, Rausch and Godsell, or Blackberry, were soon joined by three others.
Theresa Grivas became Watermelon; Sidney Dickinson was designated Banana; and Kristen Anderson took on the name Grape.
United by a mutual love of science, technology, engineering and math, the six friends make up the inseparable, high-achieving and internationally recognized robotics team, Fruit Salad.
As a competing team in the FIRST LEGO League – a competition program meant to boost youth interest in STEM – Fruit Salad’s achievements have stretched beyond continental boundaries. They’ve won awards in Illinois, but also a third-place standing in Spain out of 96 international teams.
They’re all headed to Crystal Lake South High School this year, where they’ll participate in FIRST Tech Challenge, a similar robotics program for older youths.
When it came time to pick a team name for the FIRST LEGO League, “ ’Fruit Salad’ just made sense, Godsell said.
And whether or not the fruit blend works in a real fruit salad, the girls work together as perfectly as the robots they program.
As they stood around the table operating a robot, the girls didn’t even need to speak. Communicating through nothing but knowing side glances to one another, they’re hands took turns moving items off and around the table as if by muscle memory.
“All of our parents say how amazing we work together,” Freund said, “but we don’t even think about it. It’s just what we do.”
For at least a few of the six, building, it seems, was in their blood.
“My dad is an engineer and we’ve always had Lego things all over our house,” Grivas said. “So I guess the whole Lego thing was something I had already done, but this was a whole new step in it and it was kind of awesome.”
Anderson’s induction into Fruit Salad was a little more unexpected. Before robotics, she spent much of her time dabbling in art class.
“I really want to be an art teacher,” Anderson said. “When Audrey asked me about joining, it sounded interesting. … But I used to not want to do anything like that even though my dad is an engineer. It’s really opened my eyes up to STEM.”
Godsell, too, takes after not just one, but two engineering parents who also happen to be Fruit Salad’s coaches, Kathy and Greg Godsell.
“These girls are just on a whole different playing field,” Greg Godsell said, while the girls chattered in the background. “I call them ‘alpha girls,’ and they’re so in tune with each other it’s scary. Sometimes I think they’re telepathic.”
At the basic level, Kathy Godsell said the competitions seem to have bolstered all of the girls’ public speaking and social skills.
Zooming out to the bigger picture, the girls have garnered some pretty spectacular resume-builders, Greg Godsell added.
As if learning to construct and program robots wasn’t enough, Fruit Salad put together a flood survival kit as part of the FIRST challenge. It’s currently patent pending.
“We wanted to make not just a project,” Anderson said, “but make a project that could actually help people one day.”
The experience also has helped some of the girls formulate future plans, at least for now.
“I used to want to be a writer,” Dickinson said. “Now, not at all. Now, I’m confident that I need to do something in STEM.”
Within the loud, giggly Fruit Salad bubble, however, their various accomplishments have just been part of the fun.
“This has really bonded us,” Freund said. “Now, we’re all even closer than before.”