Robo-girls Take On the World

A lone all-girl team makes the semifinals of the FIRST Robotics World Championships

Photo:Andy Hospodor

CLICK HEREfor a slide show of the robot competition

More than 10 000 teenagers from 344 teams traveled from 23 countries to the Georgia Dome this month, bringing with them teachers, parents, and mentors. Joining them were representatives of parts suppliers, manufacturers, DARPA, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The draw? The 2007 FIRST Robotics World Championship.

Seven all-girl teams made the run through the gauntlet of regional championships to be part of the Atlanta group. All-girl robotics teams are a new and growing phenomenon.Some of them earned their spots by winning regional competitions outright. Others got their tickets by capturing a Rookie All Star award--for exemplifying a young but strong partnership effort--or by garnering a Chairman's Award--for creating the best partnership among all participating teams.

The growing presence of robo-girls is good news for efforts to bring more women into science and engineering. A 2005 Brandeis University study found that students participating in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) were more likely to attend college--88 percent versus 53 percent--and major in science or engineering--55 percent versus 28 percent. After their freshman year of college, the students are 10 times more likely to find an internship or co-op summer job and four times more likely to pursue an engineering career. Representatives from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and others were out promoting their programs at the Atlanta championships among robo-girls and -boys.

Two of the qualifying all-girl teams had been to the world championships before and knew what to expect. But the remaining five teams were rookies; for them, the competition was an eye-opener. They soaked up as much of the experience as possible, sleeping only when necessary.

In the 2007 version of the game, tagged Rack 'n' Roll, each team starts with nine pool rings on the field and nine behind the human players, ready to be passed into the ring. Robots place rings on a scoring rack in the center of the field to earn points, and any team that can use one robot to lift a partner robot 0.3 meter above the field in the last moments of the game scores a bonus of 30 points. Each robot is built around an onboard controller from Innovation First, programmed in C language, the central piece of a kit that includes hundreds of parts. The controller attaches to a 900-MHz wireless modem so that the robot can be driven remotely. Teams can add on additional parts, as long as the total cost of the robot stays under US $3500. The teams compete in alliances of three, fielding one robot each.

The all-girl qualifiers included:

• The Muses, from Archer School for Girls, Los Angeles. The Atlanta event in April was their second appearance in the World Championship. This team, which dates from 2000, may have been the first all-girl team to form in the United States (robo-history is not always well documented). Wearing pink and black bowling shirts and rhinestone-studded safety glasses, the Muses distinguished themselves in Atlanta by being the only all-girl team to place a ring during the autonomous period, the 15 seconds at the beginning of every match during which robo-handlers must keep their hands off remote controls.

• S.W.A.T., from St. Mildred's-Lightbourn School, Oakville, Ont., Canada. Like the Muses, S.W.A.T. was formed seven years ago, when two girls and a teacher built a robot and convinced the school to participate in FIRST. In their first year they added a dozen "Millies," as girls are known on campus; this year S.W.A.T. boasts 25 members, an impressive statistic, considering that the school has fewer than 600 students and robo-girls outnumber other Millies on the soccer and swimming teams. Also impressive, again, because St. Mildred's doesn't push technology studies and has no CAD system or welding or metal shops. The girls built a standard chassis out of the kit supplied by FIRST, purchased an off-the-shelf transmission, and bolted, screwed, and wired together a wheeled robot with a simple manipulator arm. After the first regional competition, they realized that scoring rings was a slow way to get points (6 rings in a row equals 64 points), so they swapped the manipulator arm for ramps to lift their alliance partners (for 60 bonus points in the endgame). S.W.A.T. won the Waterloo Regional event, along with its Chairman's Award.

The team's robot is a symmetrical creature, covered with plaid maroon wool that matches the school-uniform skirts. This caused a problem in the world championships: operators had a hard time identifying the robot's orientation on the field. To solve the orientation problem, they printed the team name on two small arrows fashioned out of emery boards that a team mom had sent to them after a mentor broke a nail during a competition.

They stapled these arrows to the ramps folded up against the sides of the robot, and could easily get the robot moving in the right direction, making it harder for competitors to push their robot around. Kate, the operator of the S.W.A.T. robot, tells potential robo-girls, "Don't be intimidated by people pushing you away; go out and find support."

• The Foxy-bots, from Montclair High School, in New Jersey. The Foxy-bots could have joined an existing coed team, but team captain Lauren discovered that girls were shuttled away from robot design over to team-spirit building, fundraising, and public relations. She wanted hands-on experience and convinced Credit Suisse to sponsor her purchase of a robot kit. Her team now numbers nine, and she advises other robo-girls, "Don't listen to the boys. Just don't." The Foxy-bots shared parts and designs with their school's coed team but added ramps to its design. But they didn't notice that the ramp hinges were attached to the chassis in a way that prevented them from descending all the way to the ground, making it hard for alliance partners to get onto them. Rather than reweld the chassis, the Foxy-bots designed clever L-brackets and relocated the ramps.

• The Green Grinches, from Vancouver, Wash. This Senior Girl Scout troop uses "Talk nerdy to me" as its tagline. Seven girls and four robo-moms started the team in 2003 when the girls aged-out of the Lego League, a competition for elementary schoolers also sponsored by FIRST. They created a prototype of their robot design in cardboard and constructed the kit chassis with a single-linkage manipulator arm that could pick up rings from the ground. The seven, now high school seniors, are about to age out again, and their local Girl Scout Council has asked them to start a new team in southern Washington, train them, and provide all the tools and equipment. If they succeed in this task, the Girl Scouts will honor them with the Gold Award, the highest honor in girl scouting. And it appears that they will succeed: the day before the Green Grinches left for Atlanta, the Evergreen School District board approved a Robotics club. On the final day of the competition, the Green Grinches proudly wore their Girl Scout sashes.

• The Space Cookies, of Moffett Field, Calif. Another Girl Scout-sponsored team, the Space Cookies recruit members from public and private high schools in Palo Alto, Los Altos, Mountain View, San Jose, and Santa Cruz. Wendy Holforty, a NASA senior research engineer, mentors the team and helped team captain and founder Michaela Brandt score an internship last summer at NASA.

• The Fe26 Maidens, of the Bronx High School of Science, in New York City. This, the newest all-girl team, is a nerdy twist on the Iron Maiden of rock music fame. The Fe26 Maidens got their berth in the Worlds by winning a rookie all-star award at the New York City Regional competition. The three founding girls spun out of a big-brother team, the SciBorgs, lined up a sponsor to purchase a FIRST kit, and got lucky when a new science teacher arrived. Dorothy Fibiger, a recent graduate in chemical engineering from Cornell, started teaching at Bronx Science and signed on as the team's founding faculty advisor. Her biggest coaching challenge has been the size of the team--not the number of girls--but the size of its members. Fibiger is about 20 cm shorter than the average 170-cm team member and has difficulty seeing through them onto the playing field when she offers strategic suggestions and calls plays.

The Fe26 Maidens named their robot, Rosie the Riveted, because the girls had "lots of fun with the rivet gun." Rosie is a heavy robot that can score, and she has ramps, along with a clever secret: she plays a defensive autonomous game.Unlike the regional matches covered by IEEE Spectrum, in the Atlanta championships, many robots scored during the 15-second autonomous period that starts each game. Rosie kicks off matches by speeding down the lane into the competitor's zone, then cutting across the rear of the rack--upsetting any robot trying to score autonomously. When Rosie slammed into A-Rack-Nid, the robot of neighboring Staten Island Technical High School, in the qualifying matches, the boys definitely paid attention. But cocaptain Antoinette says, "It's less about being girls and more about being able to participate." She plans to attend SUNY Maritime College, in Throggs Neck, N.Y., and study mechanical engineering. Cocaptain Alexandria will study mechanical engineering at Rochester Polytechnic Institute. And cofounder Kathleen will study environmental science at SUNY, Binghamton. With six new recruits behind them and a strong faculty mentor, this all-girl team is on track for long-term success. They won four and lost three of their qualification matches in Atlanta--not too shabby for rookies.

• Gatorbotics, from Castilleja School, Palo Alto, Calif. The girls of Gatorbotics, who call themselves Gatorbots, started their team in 2005 and now stand at 25 students, or roughly 10 percent of the girls in their all-girls high school. When Bellarmine College Preparatory, a Jesuit high school for boys in San Jose, offered to let Castilleja join their team in 2005, these robo-girls just said "no," and now robotics is a big draw at Castilleja. Team captain Christina suggests a key element of their attraction, that the "uncomfortable feeling of doing something new, figuring it out, is an adventure." The Gatorbots start their design process after brainstorm sessions, then build simple prototypes with kit parts. Finally, they draw their design with CAD software on their laptop computers, draw up a bill of materials, ask mentors to drive them to hardware stores, electronics shops, and junkyards, and then finally go to sponsor Ideo in Palo Alto to get the chassis welded. Their robot has a passive gripper for placing rings on the rack and ramps that lift their alliance partners.

As the only all-girl team to place in the top eight in their division, winning six matches and losing only one, Gatorbotics got to select its alliance partners. Picking such alliance partners is crucial. With 344 teams competing, teams strained their resources trying to gather intelligence on the other teams. Players fed each other real-time scouting reports using IEEE 802.11 ad hoc networks, and they constantly updated Wiki pages with team analyses. When Spectrum asked whether the Gatorbots would play with the boys, operator Christina replied, "We are going to play with robots." After donning her newly issued alliance captain's hat and rearranging her hair into a ponytail that stuck out the back, she invited two coed teams, the Robonauts of Clear Creek Independent School District, League City, Texas, along with CyberBlue of Perry Meridian High School, in Indianapolis, to join her team's alliance.

The Gatorbotics robot functioned well in the qualification rounds of the Atlanta championships, winning six matches and losing only one. However, their competitors in the quarterfinals, Foley Freeze, of Bishop Foley Catholic High School, Madison Heights, Mich.; YTACCC (Youth Technology Academy), of Cleveland Municipal School District; and the home-schooled Beach Bots, of Hope Chapel Academy, in Hermosa Beach, Calif., defeated the Gatorbotics alliance 42-6 and 286-18. In the second game the Gatorbotics robot entangled itself with the scoring rack and, as the girls wrestled with the controls to free it, the robot toppled over and was down for the count.

Although none of the all-girl teams advanced beyond the quarterfinals, their presence still influenced the championship matches. The winning alliance was Gumpei, from the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science, Worcester, Mass.; Ring Wrangler, from South Windsor High School, in Connecticut; and Pit-Boss, from Cimarron-Memorial High School, in Las Vegas. Gumpei won the Silicon Valley Regional under the mentorship of former Fembot Sabrina Varanelli. Now Varanelli has a championship banner hanging in the robotics lab at Worcester Polytechnic, where she is studying mechanical engineering.

Speaking of trophies, Spectrum spotted Gatorbotics captain Christina still wearing her alliance captain hat the next day in the Atlanta airport.

About the Author

Andy Hospodor is chief technical officer of BookRenter.com and a senior member of IEEE. Joe Hospodor, a 16-year-old high school student, is responsible for public relations with the Harker Robotics Team 1072, in San Jose, Calif. Contact the authors at andy.hospodor@ieee.org.

Success in high school robotics comes from engineers who act as mentors, coaches, inspectors, or even referees at events across the country. FIRST is seeking volunteers to assist with Regional Events in March 2008 and the Championships in April 2008. See https://my.usfirst.org/vims.

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