Aspen High School juniors Jeremy Martin and Tilly Swanson can boast long tenures with the school district’s robotics program — both started creating realities from their imaginations as fourth-graders.
Now, they’re bringing their shared love of building to younger students with their newest creation, albeit she’s not a robot … yet. Betty the Yeti, in a nod to the Aspen Robo Yetis’ mascot, is the titular protagonist in the pair’s new children’s book.
The plot outlines Betty’s rainy-day adventures of sharing her love of building things with her otherwise sports-loving yeti classmates.
“We didn’t want it to be too specific to our team,” Martin said. Instead, he felt that a more general activity, like playing with Legos, would be more accessible than coding to the book’s target demographic: elementary school students.
For Martin, the idea was bolstered by a classroom discussion in his English class, in which he and his peers explored the strong influence of children’s books on a student’s learning trajectory. For her part, Swanson already had firsthand experience with that subject, as she volunteers at Aspen Elementary School weekly to read with very young readers struggling with literacy.
During those reading sessions, Swanson noticed a consistent discrepancy between the types of books given to girls versus boys.
“The boys so often get books about construction, things like that,” she said.
But for the girls?
“Animals or movies,” she noted.
Swanson called it a “difference;” Martin dubbed the phenomenon an outright “deficiency.” Either way, they saw an immediate opportunity. Not only could they create a children’s book to introduce STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — to children at a much younger age than when those subjects are typically introduced in school curricula, they could do so through the perspective of a female character.
The gender of their prima yeti wasn’t the only very intentional decision that went into Martin’s wordplay and Swanson’s illustrations. For instance, while Martin considers writing to be among his academic strengths, he doesn’t have much classroom opportunity for poetry. Channeling his inner Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, Martin went to great lengths to ensure a rhyming scheme served as the rhetorical backbone of Betty’s tale.
“You’d be surprised how few words rhyme with ‘robotics,’” he said. “It required some creativity.”
And while Swanson is a “very talented physical artist,” per Martin’s testimony, she flexed her Adobe Photoshop prowess for this project.
“I really like digital illustration,” she said. “Photoshop does this processing where it creates the look of another medium.”
So, while Betty’s literal show-and-tell narrative looks like it was handcrafted in watercolors, it was actually done via Photoshop — well, and the tutorials on YouTube that Swanson devoured. Even though a children’s book was a completely new undertaking for both students, the entire project took about a month.
Even printing a tangible book on a limited budget required some Internet savvy. While “it’s looking now like we may publish,” as Swanson said, in the initial launch, they used Shutterfly, a website otherwise frequently used to print wedding save-the-date notices and invitations.
“We use yeti stickers to cover the [Shutterfly] logo,” Martin laughed.
In addition to launching their book, Martin and Swanson also are busy preparing for an upcoming competition, making tweaks to ensure their most recent creation literally stacks up against the competition.
While each event assigns a different skill for the student-built robots to demonstrate, Saturday’s focuses on the ability to stack items. And while Aspen High School has hosted plenty of such events, this weekend, Swanson and Martin will join their teammates on a trek to Coal Ridge High School in New Castle in hopes that Jeffrey — or perhaps Geoffrey or Jeffree — can outstack its counterparts.
“Because we’ve all been doing robotics for 10 years now, there are a lot of crazy traditions,” Swanson said, explaining that one such tradition is naming each robot the team builds some iteration of Jeffrey. “But we spell it differently every time,” though the team hasn’t yet settled on a spelling for Saturday’s hopeful champion.
“And now, there will need to be a female friend for future Jeffreys: Betty!” Martin beamed.