Robo-girls

All-girl teams make their presence felt at regional high school robotics competitions

Photo:Andy Hospodor

CLICK HEREfor a slide show of the robot competition

Thousands of teenagers descended on the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena the second weekend in March—not for a rock concert but for a regional robotics competition, one of 37 such events held Internationally. These competitions have been going on for 18 years now, but for the first time, all-girls teams made their presence felt.

The teens came bearing robots—constructed of aluminum, steel, plastic, and wood—weighing 40 to 55 kilograms, reaching as high as 5 meters and capable of draining a 12-volt, 18-ampere-hour motorcycle battery in under 3 minutes. The teens had less than six weeks to design and build robots to play a simple game: each team allies its robot with two other robots, then competes against another three-team alliance in placing inflated rings onto a rack on a carpeted playing field. Each new ring an alliance piles on the rack scores more points than the one that came before.

An alliance can score bonus points by lifting a teammate inside the home zone so that the robot is in the air when the 2 minute and 15 second game ends. A lift of 4 inches (10 centimeters) scores 15 points; a lift of 12 inches (30 cm) scores 30 points.

The Los Angeles regional competition began with eight seed rounds in which the robots were assigned to alliances at random. The eight teams that did the best—according to wins, losses, and number of points scored—then got to choose their alliances for the finals. First, they chose one robot each, with the top seed going first; then they each chose a third partner, with the eighth seed going first. The resulting eight alliances then played one another in three-game matches.

The action was fast-paced, with no time to bring robots into the pit for tune-ups between games. The stress of competition eliminated unreliable robots, and the area around the playing field was filled with stacks of discharged batteries.

Dean Kamen, famous for inventing the Segway scooter, founded the competition in 1989 under the acronym FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). His goal was to inspire young people to take a greater interest in and participate more in learning about science and technology. The initial competition took place 15 years ago with 28 teams competing in a high school gymnasium in Manchester, N.H.

The game changes every year, and FIRST supplies each team with the same kit of parts and a standard set of rules. The 2007 edition will be the largest ever, with more than 32 000 teenagers on 1300 teams from 7 countries—Brazil, Canada, Great Britain, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the United States—competing in 37 regional events.

While all-boy and coed teams have been the norm since the beginning, in 2000 a group from the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles formed what is believed to be the first all-girl robotics team. They named their team after the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus, and dubbed their robot Polyhymnia, the Muse of sacred poetry.

Also in 2000, the St. Francis High School in Sacramento, Calif., decided that a girls’ school could field a team just as skilled and determined as the boys’ teams. They called themselves the Fembots, after the sultry android played by Elizabeth Hurley in the 1997 movie, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

The all-girl concept caught on. This year, California has 10 all-girl teams, out of 19 nationwide. At this year's Los Angeles regional, the Royal Robotrons, an all-girl team from Louisville High School in Woodland Hills, were in first place as they entered the final round. Their robot was a simple, elegant structure of wood and aluminum, designed to do just one thing: lift the two other alliance robots 30 centimeters (12 inches) in the air. This shrewd specialization meant that the Louisville team cared only about getting those 60 bonus points, leaving the job of placing the rings on the racks to its alliance partners, whoever they might be.

The biggest obstacle the girls had to overcome was their school's lack of a metal shop in which to construct a robot. In 2003, team founders Janet Chu and Nadia Shraibati enlisted Nadia's father, Tarek Shraibati, a professor in the manufacturing systems engineering and management department of California State University, Northridge. The girls worked on design concepts at school during the week and turned them into reality on the weekends at Northridge.

Nadia went on to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, to study biomedical engineering, but her father, Tarek, stayed on to mentor the team. In January, IEEE member Mike Nicoll invited Tarek to speak about FIRST Robotics at the January 2007 IEEE Buena Ventura Computer Society Chapter meeting, to draw technical advisors and mentors to the team.

The Louisville girls began with the standard equipment that FIRST supplies to all the teams: a radio, a robot controller, motor controllers, motors, pneumatics, and power distribution components. They assembled a ”kit-bot” frame using parts from the kit and focused their design work on the ramps used to elevate alliance partners.

The resulting robot was simple and reliable, because it had to be. The team knew that it had only six weekends—that is, 12 days—of the six-week build time, whereas some of the competing teams would surely use the full 42 days.

The team started the seed rounds with an 8-to-8 tie followed by a 32-to-4 win, as it lifted one alliance robot up 30 centimeters, for 30 bonus points. The alliance's competitive advantage increased as its partners began to get the hang of climbing the Louisville robot's ramps. By the third seed match, the girls were posting 64-to-0 wins. By the end of the seed rounds, the Royal Robotrons had posted six wins, one loss, and one tie, making them the top seed.

The final elimination matches of a FIRST robotics competition were held on weekends in college arenas. Inevitably, by noon the stands would be filled with large swaths of team colors, and the parents—some of them sporting orange or green hair—would be cheering, often screaming out team numbers and battle cries. So rambunctious was the crowd that FIRST officials had to restrict enthusiasm by prohibiting live bands and depriving the spectators of their Silly String.

Captain Stacey Chu concentrated on selecting alliance partners, and the rest of the Royal Robotrons prepared the robot. The biggest problem they faced was the tendency of alliance partners to slip on the Royal Robotrons’ plywood ramps. The team modified the ramps with antislip stair coating, and then quickly invited its alliance teams to the practice area during the break before the next round.

In the quarterfinal round, the Louisville team watched as its alliance partners attempted to outscore the competition by placing more rings on the racks. Though the ramps were down and ready, none of the alliance partners could make their robots climb in time, so the alliance lost the game by 16 to 23. In the second game, Louisville’s partners played excellent defense while the robot waited in the home zone. Although the partners managed to place only three adjacent rings, for a mere 8 points, the Louisville robot was able to elevate both of its alliance robots and thus win the match, by 68 to 33.

In the last game of the quarterfinal, with the match tied 1 to 1, the alliance partners played aggressive defense right through the endgame. Time ran out with no bonus points, and the partnership lost the match by 0 to 16 as the competing alliance scored 4 adjacent rings.

Okay, so this time, the girls lost to the boys; still, there were no tears here. The Royal Robotrons had proved that girls could compete in robotics. They felt both elation and relief when their pneumatics actuated and hoisted alliance robots high into the air.

The winning alliance was Bellarmine College Preparatory of San Jose, a home-schooled team called BeachBots, from Hermosa Beach, and High Tech High of Lake Balboa. They posted winning scores of 305 to 30 and 58 to 53. The Bellarmine robot moved with striking fluidity, having been built with beautifully anodized parts under the mentoring of engineers from the NASA Ames Research Center, in Mountain View.

As for the Royal Robotrons, they planned to use their experience from the Los Angeles regional to tweak their robot for the Silicon Valley Regional in San Jose, from 15 to 17 March. There an unprecedented seven all-girl teams went head to head with two boys’ teams and 37 coed teams. IEEE Spectrum will bring you that report.

This regional provides another shot at a spot in the national championship, slated for 12 to 14 April, in Atlanta. Spectrum will be there, too, reporting on 8500 teenagers from 340 teams who will compete for the title of top robotics team. For more information, check out http://www.usfirst.org/community/frc/regionalevents.aspx?id=430for regional events near you (admission is always free).

For Robo Girls Part 2, see "Robo-girls Know the Way to San Jose"

About the Author

ANDY HOSPODOR is chief technical officer of BookRenter.com, in San Jose, and a senior member of the IEEE. JOE HOSPODOR, a 16-year-old high school student, is responsible for public relations for San Jose's Harker Robotics Team.

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