One of the most prestigious awards at the FIRST
championships this weekend in Atlanta, Ga. goes to the First Tech Challenge (FTC) team that
represents the best role model. This year, the winner of the Inspire Award, the Rock
N Roll Robots, have a pretty good role model themselves.
Their mentor, Julie Townsend, is an academic all-star around the halls
of NASA. After undergrad at MIT, the Detroit native earned her Masters
in Stanford's department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and is
finishing up her doctorate there now. She joined NASA in 2001 to work
on the Mars Exploration Rovers—and even at the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, she stands out. "About 80 people work in my section," she
says. "I'm one of four women."
According to the American Association of University Women, only 20
percent of the bachelor's degrees in fields like physics, engineering
and computer science go to women. Advanced degrees are even more
skewed. Test scores reinforce that women do not suffer from any
inherent deficiencies in these fields—they simply need more
encouragement to pursue them. Which is why Townsend began teaching
robotics and engineering to Los Angeles-area high school girls. The
Girl Scouts, to be exact.
Three years ago, the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles signed up for FIRST
to offer Scouts hands-on science and engineering
instruction. There are as many as 50 other teams in the troop's area,
but Townsend estimates only two or three are made up entirely of
girls. "Some of those other teams are coed," she says, "but on a lot
of coed teams, girls don't get the opportunity to excel."
Unfortunately, that also fits a trend: A recent survey by the Bayer
Corporation found that 40 percent of women in science, technology and
engineering fields were actively discouraged from their career choices
at some point during schooling. Eight Girl Scouts showed up for
Townsend's introductory meeting—where she quickly realized she was
starting from scratch. "What's a robot?" they asked.
They learned quickly. The team picked up the build mechanics easily. In the FIRST Tech Challenge,
teams of up to 10 students build robots from a modular kit—it's more
accessible (and cheaper) than FTC's sister competition for high school
students, FIRST Robotics. The strategy of gameplay was tougher,
however, and the first
competition left a lot to be desired. "We finished dead last,"
Townsend says. "Well, no, one team got disqualified." But one strategy
session later, the girls were back in the shop, building a new robot
with a new game plan. Their confidence grew as they raced up the
leaderboards: third place in their next competition, second in the one
after that. Soon Team 25 was bound for Atlanta, and a spot in the
World Championships. Somewhere along the line, the cookie jokes
stopped. "We'd go to a competition and I'd see our girls helping some
other team fix their robot," Townsend says.
The team has see eight members graduate over the past three years, and
six of those girls have begun college studies in engineering fields.
"They've learned to believe they can do it," Townsend says. "That's
what this is all about." In fact, the troop has another strategic
decision to make. Too many girls are signing up for the team. "We
might have to run two robots next year."
We saw the bot in Atlanta. Was down with my daughter's FRC team and our local FTC 4-H team. Great job guys! Girl Scouts has had a great showing in Atlanta the 5 years we've been there. We do not have a Girl Scout team but many local scouts participate in FIRST and all have the Robotics IP to prove it ;-)