Robo-girls Know the Way to San Jose

A record number of all-girls teams competed in the Silicon Valley Regional match of the FIRST Robotics competition

Photo:Andy Hospodor

CLICK HEREfor a slide show of the robot competition

An unprecedented seven all-girl teams brought their best robots to San Jose State University to compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Silicon Valley Regional match [Click here to read the first story in this series.]. The routes they took to the competition, held during the weekend of 15 to 17 March, were as different as their robots.

Elena Livek's story began in a classroom at Notre Dame High in San Jose. "My friend and I were serving detention, and there was this robot in there, and I asked about it," she says. Impressed with what she learned, Elena joined Jankster, a new robotics team that had only enough resources to attend a single competitive event. The Silicon Valley match for the Jankster team was all or nothing.

For veteran all-girl teams, however-like the Muses, of The Archer School for Girls, in Los Angeles, and the Fembots, of St. Francis High School, in Sacramento, Calif.—competing at Silicon Valley would follow matches in several other regional events, increasing their chances of making it to the national competition.

As for Sabrina Varanelli, she traces her interest back to the second grade, when she decided she would work for NASA when she grew up. Years later, as a freshman at St. Francis High, she noticed a NASA sticker on a robot during a club fair and joined the robot team—the Fembots.

The next year, though, Varanelli moved to Pope John XXIII Regional High School, in Sparta, N.J., which lacked a robotics program. With support from the school's principal and a guidance counselor, in 2004 she founded the LionHearts team, recruiting members, finding a faculty mentor, and raising US $30 000 during her three years as president. Now she's studying mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and serving as a mentor herself for a coed team called Gompei at the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science, also in Worchester. She advises girls to ignore social stereotypes and tells them, "just do what you love, and don't do it for anyone else."

Robo-girls do just that-and sometimes remind observers that they are, indeed, girls. At the 2006 Sacramento regional, the Fembots discovered leftover parts from the FIRST kit of robot components and designed their own brand of robo jewelry, sharing the highly coveted necklaces, earrings, and bracelets with other robo-girls.

The girls tend to stick together. Last year, for instance, when Michaela Brant founded the Space Cookies with 11 girls from seven high schools in California's Santa Clara County, she got backing from the local Girl Scout council. The council created a troop for the robo-girls and funded it. The Space Cookies went on to win top rookie honors at the Silicon Valley Regional and traveled to the national competition last year. For 2007, the Space Cookies team includes 15 girls from 11 San Francisco Bay area high schools.

The Space Cookies also share with other robo-girls. When Presentation High School, of San Jose, wanted to start an all-girl robotics team, the Space Cookies provided mentors and equipment parts to launch the Invasion team in 2007. Francesca Lomotan, a senior on the team, recruited 32 girls from within her all-girl school.

At this year's Silicon Valley Regional, three of the all-girl teams advanced to the elimination rounds. The Royal Robotrons of Louisville High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., began in the seventh slot, the highest seed among the all-girl teams. They picked the all-boy Cheesypoofs of Bellarmine College Preparatory, in San Jose, and the all-girl Fembots of St. Francis High School as their alliance partners. The all-girl Gatorbotics, from Palo Alto's Castilleja School, accepted an invitation to join the sixth-seeded alliance of two coed teams.

In the quarterfinals, the Royal Robotron alliance lost the first match 68-46 when their competitors lifted two robots, for 60 bonus points. (A team scores points by placing large inflated rings on a rack, and it can add bonus scores by lifting one of its robots to various specified heights.) The alliance won the second quarter final in a 33-0 shutout, but in a third match, their competitors pulled their robot back into the home zone after scoring only 8 points, and carefully lifted two robots for a 60-point bonus. The Robotrons lost 68-16.

The Gatorbotics alliance brought fans to their feet with some of the regional's best match play. In their first quarterfinal, they lost 76-46 in the final seconds of the match to an alliance that included Massachusetts Academy's Gompei. The Gatorbotics group got 30 bonus points for elevating one robot, but the Gompei alliance elevated two robots, for 60 points. With the match settled in the last seconds, and a team member dressed in a velour green Gator costume dancing on the arena floor, the crowd exploded.

In the Gatorbotics' second quarterfinal game, both alliances scored only 4 points, then elevated four robots, and ended the game with a 64-64 tie. In the final match, both alliances scored 16 points and lifted their robots, but referees judged that one of the Gatorbotics alliance partners did not clear the required 30 centimeters; that lift scored the team only 15 points. The final score of 76-61 ended the day for the all-girl teams; none made the semifinals.

Although fewer than half of the all-girl teams made it to the elimination matches, none of them felt defeated. The Muses won the Imagery Award and the Gatorbotics team took home the DaimlerChrysler Team Spirit Award. The Invasion received the Rookie Inspiration Award, bringing home medals all around and a robotics trophy for the school's trophy case.

It's early days for robo-girls. Eventually, their efforts should produce the first all-girl national champion robotics team. Could that happen at the national championship in Atlanta this month? IEEE Spectrum will be there.

For Robot Girls Part 3, see "Robo-girls Redux: Sacramento Semifinals"

About the Author

ANDY HOSPODOR is chief technical officer of BookRenter.com, in Sunnyvale, Calif., and a senior member of the IEEE. JOE HOSPODOR, a 16-year-old high school student, is responsible for public relations for the Harker Robotics Team 1072 in San Jose.

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