For the Girls of Steel, Building Robots Is a Team Sport

Jan 16, 2015

At a lab in Carnegie Mellon University's Field Robotics Center, dozens of goggle-clad teenage girls are drilling, hammering and writing code.

They’re the Girls of Steel, and the goal is to build the mind and body of a robot in the next few weeks. Then the girls — and their robot — will enter robotics competitions.

"We picked a general overall design to really hashing out the details," said Sophia Lee, a junior at North Allegheny High School, who was drilling two pieces of wood together for an early prototype of the robot. "We know that we want to do this, but how exactly are we going to do, so what mechanisms are we going to use, like what kind of metal are we going to use what kind of parts are we going to use, is it going to actually work so this is basically the practice before we build the actual robot."

Members of the Girls of Steel robotics team pose for a group photo with CMU robotics professor Chris Atkeson and characters from the Disney film "Big Hero 6."
Credit Courtesy Girls of Steel

The Girls of Steel is an all-female robotics competition team. The team is made up of about 50 girls from more than a dozen high schools.

They spend their free hours in this lab preparing for FIRST competitions. Meaning "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," these competitions began 25 years ago to make science and math compelling and fun — and fields students would want to pursue.

Last week, all of the competing teams got their assignments. This week, the hands-on work begins.

The end result will be something similar to Atlas, the robot they built last year that made it all the way to the national competition in St. Louis.

George Kantor, a systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon who works with the girls, said the competitions are part science-fair, part sport — sort of a sport of the mind.

"The students build robots that weigh about 120 pounds," Kantor said. "They are about 4 or 5 feet high, so they’re big machines, and they play a competition that’s a sports-like game. So in the past we’ve done things like basketball, Frisbee. Last year we had to handle these giant yoga balls and throw them around."

Engineering has been dominated by men for a long time. Kantor, who builds robots that are used in agriculture and mining, said many of his university students are male. Working with these girls, he hopes, is a way to even out the ratio.

"One of the things we’re trying to do is get girls excited about doing this, create the attitude that girls are just as good as boys at doing this, build the confidence so maybe they’ll go on and tackle that big hurdle of going into an engineering program when they know its going to be mostly boys," Kantor said. 

According to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, only 14 percent of engineers are women. And research released earlier this year said that close to 40 percent of women with engineering degrees leave the profession because of workplace issues and culture or never get jobs in the field to begin with.

At the FIRST competitions, the Girls of Steel are a rarity. There are just over a dozen all-female teams and most of them are from all-girls schools. Some of the girls on the Girls of Steel team have robotics teams at their schools, but they chose to come here. 

"A lot of times the girls are just thrust into the business position while the boys are the ones who are going to build the robot," said Sophia Lee. "So like in this team, we’re able to experience both sides." 

Before Avonworth High School junior Becca Volk joined Girls of Steel, she was on another robotics team — where she was the only female. 

"It's incredible being on an all-girls team transitioning from a co-ed team," she said. 

Now on this team, she’s working on the drill press and brainstorming with her teammates. 

"Definitely it’s a different environment," Volk said. "I want to say it's more open almost, we’re like one big family and one big team. We’re not split up into this part of the robot and that part of the robot, working together we make something as a team."

Girls have to apply to be on the team, and knowledge of math and science is a plus.

"We try to get them excited enough to get them excited when they do the science and math in school," Kantor said.

For Lee, building and systems have always been an interest. It started early when she played with toys.

"I was really interested in dolls and stuffed animals, and once I learned about Legos, I was like, this is pretty cool, so I built houses for my stuffed animals," she said. "So it was sort of a combination of the stereotypical girl toy, plus like the Legos."

Girls of Steel has graduated 20 girls since the program started five years ago. Kantor said 19 of them have gone into STEM majors as college students. Certainly that’s the plan for many of these girls who want to go into computer or mechanical engineering. And in addition to the practical and educational components, Lee said there is another important reason why the girls chose to spend so much time working together.

"At school, even though I love all this robotics stuff, I don’t really have anyone there who can relate to me because they don’t get these awesome experiences," she said. "Whenever I come here, we all have this really great passion for STEM and for robotics, so immediately we bond that way."

The girls have six weeks to build their robot.