Gilbert senior Mikayla Lauritsen turns her passion into a future

Sitting with her legs tucked underneath her, Gilbert senior Mikayla Lauritsen pushes her hair back behind her ears to reveal a beaming smile on her face as she talks about her passion. It’s an under-the-radar passion, something that probably not a lot of her classmates even know about, but it’s started her on a journey she will follow after she exits high school.

Lauritsen’s love and dedication to it is what makes her chuckle though as she sits in the office of Gilbert Assistant Principal John Ronca on a late August afternoon. Her mind drifts back to the summer of 2019, prior to the start of her freshman year at GHS, and her reluctance to even join the group that she now considers family.

“I had a friend who said, ‘I think you’d be interested in this,’ but I honestly felt obligated to join her at the new student meeting,” Lauritsen said. “But it was probably the best investment I’ve made.”

That investment was in Team Neutrino, an engineering club for Story County students founded at Ames High School in 2011 before it moved to Iowa State University in 2012. Each spring, Team Neutrino competes in the FIRST Robotics Competition with the goal of qualifying for the World Championship.

The build and competition are only part of the team’s mission though. Team Neutrino also spends days, weeks, and months mentoring young students in central Iowa in an effort to highlight the benefits of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

“Getting other kids involved is really, really important,” Lauritsen, who is now in her fourth year with the team said. “We want to be able to teach STEM to the new generation, and we’re willing to help any aspiring engineer with anything they want to do.”

Team Neutrino recently produced its own television show entitled Full STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) Ahead, which airs on Ames Public Access TV (Mediacom channel 121-16). Debuting on Aug. 27, the seven-episode series broadcasts every Saturday.

Team Neutrino began its outreach to aspiring engineers online during the COVID-19 pandemic with Stay At Home STEAM, a Youtube series that ran for nine weeks.

“During quarantine, we were all trying to figure out how to get more kids interested in STEM, so we came up with these activities that would be focused around the principles of STEAM,” Lauritsen said.

As part of its summer outreach program, Team Neutrino teaches a class through the Ames Community School District. It also takes part in summer camps, and attends other events throughout central Iowa to spread its love for engineering.

In some ways, it can be a full-time job. Throw in the additional hours of work and exhaustion — mentally and physically — during competition season and Lauritsen says it’s her team’s version of varsity athletics.

“We say it’s very much like a varsity sport that is played year-around,” she said.

It’s that willingness to give back to her own classmates and the younger generation that impresses Gilbert Principal Cindy Bassett.

“I’m super excited for Mikayla because she has found and spent time with something that she’s so passionate about,” Bassett said. “She’s excelled and helped her team excel, and she just makes a great role model for other high school kids and other kids in the district who want to go into those areas.”

The FIRST Robotics Competition is considered the big-time in Team Neutrino’s world, and in 2022 the group had its most successful season in history. It all began in early January on what is called Kickoff Day, where robotics teams across the country learned about the game that would be played. That’s when strategy and plans were put into place, as teams had only six weeks to build their robot and get it ready to compete in Rapid React, a game that revolves around utilizing the robots to shoot inflatable over-sized tennis balls into a central hub.

“During build season, we’re together probably 20 to 25 hours per week,” Lauritsen said.

Team Neutrino’s 2022 build went quite well, as it was one of only three teams to triple qualify for the World Championship. It won the Engineering Inspiration Award at the Iowa Regional, and then captured the Chairman’s Award at the Minnesota North Star Regional.

At the World Championship in Houston, Team Neutrino became the first Iowa team to win the Championship Engineering Inspiration Award, a fact that Lauritsen relays with pride.

“When we won the event with the robot at the North Star Regional, that was really cool too,” she said.

This season, Lauritsen is taking on an even bigger role with Team Neutrino as a team captain, an honor bestowed upon her during the offseason. She admits there are butterflies in her stomach as she schemes with her teammates to keep Team Neutrino among the most competitive groups in the country.

“I was really excited and also really scared when I found out I was named a captain,” she said. “I was speechless and I wondered how can I live up to these expectations? But then I thought, oh yeah, I have a lot of great people that can help me.

“This past offseason, we did a good job of getting people involved.”

Not only does Team Neutrino continue its outreach program while it prepares for the spring competition season, it also has to constantly fundraise. News flash: it’s not cheap to build a robot, which is why the group — which includes a group of dedicated advisors led by team coach Brian Steward, Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State — is constantly looking for ways to raise funds.

“A lot of people don’t know that it’s really expensive to build a robot,” Lauritsen said. “We raise about $40,000 every year and most of it is through sponsorships.”

Last season, companies such as Apple — yes, THE Apple — and NASA were major donors to the team. So were John Deere, Sauer-Danfoss, and Workiva. In all, some 20 organizations contributed to the team’s cause.

Lauritsen is hopeful the 2023 season will be equally successful to last spring. Afterward, she’ll set her sights on her future as a student at Iowa State next fall.

Want to take a guess at what she plans to major in?

“Mechanical engineering and industrial engineering are the two possible fields at Iowa State,” Lauritsen, who has already been accepted to the college, said. “I’m really interested in manufacturing and how to make things more efficient, but that’s not (offered) at Iowa State.”

Something that began out of reluctance with that initial Team Neutrino meeting has now turned into a potential career for Lauritsen. Sometimes, it’s the chances we take that produce the best results, something Lauritsen now knows first-hand.

To view the 2022 Team Neutrino Chairman’s video, click HERE.