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How To Get Girls Into Engineering? Let Them Build Robots

Melody Stone / Capital Public Radio

Fembots co-captains, Danielle Velez and Allison Oliveros, look over their team's robot before bagging it up to take to the regional competition.

Melody Stone / Capital Public Radio

St. Francis High School’s robotics team, the Fembots, see the gender gap in engineering as an opportunity, not a problem.

The Fembots are one of the few all-girls FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technologies) robotics teams in the country. The girls brought their original robotic creation to the Northern California FIRST Robotics Competition in Davis Wednesday afternoon. The competition runs through Saturday.

Every year the teams design their robots to compete in a different game, with challenges unique to each season.

This year, the game is “Stronghold,” a medieval tower defense game. Robots compete in alliances, three on three. The goal is to score as many points as possible by traversing terrain and throwing “boulders” into the other alliance’s tower. At the end of a match, the robots can attempt to scale the enemy tower for more points.

Juniors Danielle (Kiki) Velez and Allison Oliveros are co-captains of The Fembots.

“I like being a part of robotics because it allows me to challenge myself, and push my limits and learn more about engineering,” says Velez. “I wouldn’t have that opportunity without this team.”

Oliveros is the programming lead; her team programs the automated series of moves the robot will make at the start of the match. Then, a human operator will take over the machine’s control.

Women are chronically underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math. Velez says her team views it as an opportunity.

“When we go to competition, we’re typically the only team with more than three girls,” says Velez. “It’s an awesome feeling to go out there, and show people watching, and show the teenage boys that we can do this, too, and we’re just as good at it - it’s just really validating.”  

The students put in long hours and late nights for six weeks building their robot. At the end of the build season, the robot goes into a bag and is sealed up until the competition.

The silver frame sits on two angled treads. Oliveros says these treads help give their robot a competitive advantage when traversing the dynamic terrains on the field.

“Our track system is kind of unique,” says Oliveros. “We’ve tested it and it does definitely go over pretty well.”

Once teams arrive on site they can make last-minute changes or improvements to their robot. The girls plan on adding an arm so the robot can grab onto and climb the enemy tower.

“It’s very stressful, but it’s also very fun,” says Oliveros about competing.

With only six weeks to put together a robot, a lot can go wrong at the last minute. Last year, the Fembots arrived at competition and assembled their bot, only to discover it exceeded the weight limit.

“That night in the hotel room we made carbon fiber tubes to replace our aluminum tubes on the robot,” says Velez. “ We had to cut back the weight by like ten pounds. It was exciting. At least we got to compete.”

This year, they made sure they were well-below the weight limit.

Peter Strawn is the Fembot’s coach and the academic technology specialist at St. Francis. It’s his first year coaching the team and his first year going to a FIRST competition.

“I love the design of [the robot]. I think it’s really cool that we have something that does all these things on the field,” Strawn says. “It can move around and go over these obstacles - but also aesthetically it looks really cool.”

Over the course of the weekend, the Fembots will be up against more than 50 other teams at the UC Davis Pavilion. The two highest-ranking teams will go on to the national competitions in Saint Louis, Missouri. Win or lose, the Fembots designed and built a robot in six weeks that can traverse bumpy terrain, throw boulders and scale towers.

Strawn says he’s really excited about the life skills each student takes away from being in the robotics program.

“It’s more than just building a robot, it’s problem-solving, it’s critical thinking, it’s collaboration and communication - there are so many skills that go into it.”

THIS YEAR'S CHALLENGE: STRONGHOLD

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