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The Inspiration Behind the Rock N Roll Robots at FIRST

Thursday, April 22, 2010   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Faina Paskar
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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."

Comments...

Elizabeth Huxford (Lockhart) says...
Posted Friday, April 30, 2010
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 ;-)

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