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CMU's all-girls robotics team programmed to succeed

| Monday, Nov. 29, 2010

Move over, Rosie the Riveter. Pittsburgh is training Rosie the Robot-builder.

Twenty-six high school girls are designing, assembling, programming and testing a robot at Carnegie Mellon University in preparation for a nationwide competition.

The Girls of Steel team, founded by the PghTech Women's Network and the university, is part of an effort to get more girls and women into high-tech fields where they traditionally are under-represented.

"When you look at our graduate programs, the number of men vastly outnumber the women, even though the skill sets are the same," said George Kantor, a systems scientist at the Field Robotics Center.

The team is part of a national nonprofit program called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST. In March, Girls of Steel will compete against teams from Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and parts of Canada in the regional FIRST Robotics Competition at the University of Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center, hoping to advance to the program's championship in St. Louis.

A September report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology showed performance by students in science and math consistently is mediocre compared to that in other nations, and there is a shortage of teachers who know and love those fields enough to inspire students.

Too many girls grow up convinced they don't belong in math, science and engineering, if only because there aren't as many mentors for them, said Patti Rote, robotics industry program director at Carnegie Mellon and one of the team's organizers.

"When I see these girls who say, 'I don't think I can do this,' it's because someone, at some point, someone told them they couldn't," she said.

After several weeks of instruction from Carnegie Mellon faculty and students in the basics of robot design and construction, the girls last week broke into groups to build a practice robot, Kantor said.

"Everyone in charge here really knows what they're talking about. It's a big confidence booster," said Julia DiPietro, a freshman at The Ellis School in Shadyside. "I can come into school and talk to my friends about the stuff we do ... they're like, 'Cool, you build robots.' "

Mike Cozza, president of Converge Robotics in Ben Avon and one of the team's sponsors, said he might join a few of the weekly classes to help teach the girls.

"One of the great things about FIRST is that it exposes members to real professionals, to see what it's really like in the field and not just in an academic setting," said Cozza, a Carnegie Mellon graduate.

Ranging from freshmen to seniors, the girls come from 11 schools: Avonworth, The Ellis School, Jeannette, Oakland Catholic, PA Cyber Charter, PA Leadership Charter, Pine-Richland, Seneca Valley, The University School, Upper St. Clair and Winchester Thurston.

For Rachel Round, 15, the team offered a chance to explore her love of science and technology. She checked out the robotics team at another school, but found 16 boys in the group and only two girls.

"I was really intimidated, but I think this program has changed the way I look at it. You aren't less of a person because you're a girl; you're not less capable of any of this," said Round, who is home-schooled. "I really like working with the manipulators -- the robot arms. I like getting down and dirty, working up close with it."

"This kind of program shows the girls it's OK to be timid at first, to try out new tools and ask questions," said Breelyn Kane, 28, a doctoral student and mentor. "Maybe it's the group we draw from, but a lot of these girls don't need that part -- they're already very interested and outspoken."

A "building season" kickoff event will take place Jan. 8 in Lawrenceville, when FIRST will announce goals and rules for this year's competition. The game differs each year; last year, the robots were built to play soccer.

Teams are encouraged to cooperate. Students from elsewhere can sit in on lessons with Carnegie Mellon's robot gurus, and teams help each other with technical problems. Awards at the competition recognize groups that exemplify the program's cooperative nature.

"There's an electricity in the air with these (competitions). It's like a sporting event," said Patricia DePra, regional director for FIRST. "Teams bring mascots, and there will be lots of cheering sections."

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