By Nicole Chynoweth
Point Park News Service
A metal contraption sits inside Carnegie Mellon University’s Field Robotics Center.
Bundles of multi-colored wires snake around the contraption’s silver body, with welded joints and column-like appendages supporting its innards’ electrical work.
And all of it was built by a bunch of teenage girls.
Girls of Steel Robotics is a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology) Robotics Competition (FRC) team comprised of 44 girls from various Pittsburgh high schools, as well as PA Cyber Charter School and home schools. In its third year, the team creates a functioning robot over the course of six weeks and enters it into regional and national competitions against other student teams from all over the world.
“Learning how to build a 120-pound robot is pretty phenomenal,” team co-founder Patti Rote, of Shadyside, said.
The robotics competition promotes involvement and education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM fields, which, according to Rote, are fields that “need more young women.” Rote, who is the robotics industry program director at CMU, judged robotics competitions for several years, and continuously noticed a lack of female participation.
“I had never seen an all-girls team,” Rote said. “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time to change that.’”
After a failed first attempt approximately five years ago, Rote successfully formed a team in 2010 with 25 girls. The team has since grown in size, evolved its operations and won several accolades including Rookie All Stars in 2011 and the Website Excellence Award at in 2012 at Pittsburgh’s regional competitions.
Dakota Calvert, 17, of Jeannette, has participated since the team’s inception.
“My mom kind of made me join,” Calvert said. “I was skeptical at first.”
Calvert “fell in love” with the program after attending her first competition.
“When you think of math and science, you don’t think of how fun it can be,” Calvert said.
Each competition season, the competition assigns a game and robot kit for students to build. The game represents the task the robot must complete, such as last year’s robot’s task of shooting a basketball. The kit contains basic materials the teams may use, but outside materials are also allowed in competition.
Girls of Steel Robotics meets at CMU’s Field Robotics Center during the preseason, from September to December, to work on a project to help them learn the machines in the workshop. After the competition announces the game and distributes the kit, the team builds the robot using the university’s workshops and tools during the six weeks of competition between January and February.
“It’s a very unique experience to be dealing with something like this,” Calvert said. “This is a project that real-life engineers have to deal with.”
The team divides into five subteams to build its robot: chassis, manipulator, electronics, programming and special projects. Each subteam has an appointed student leader and receives assistance from mentors, including CMU students, faculty and staff.
Calvert serves as the leader for the chassis team, which constructs the device that “moves everything” and supports the manipulator, the device that completes the game’s task. Her friend Tammy Bevilacqua, 17, of Jeannette, serves as the leader for the manipulator team.
“We work together so that anything we build will be integrated,” Calvert said. “If she [Bevilacqua] plans on putting an arm on the robot, it will be supported [by the chassis.]”
Bevilacqua joined the team after noticing Calvert’s dedicated involvement in the program.
“She was always doing stuff with [Girls of Steel],” Bevilacqua said. “I was like…what is she doing?”
Bevilacqua joined the team assuming it “would look good on a college application,” and ended up developing an affinity for working in CMU’s machine shop.
“I didn’t have this passion about anything before I got on the team,” said Bevilacqua, who enjoys using the lathe and horizontal handsaw. “It’s such a big world that I never knew existed. I love it.”
The team first brainstorms ideas about how to tweak the kit to make an efficient robot. After designing the robot, the team uses computer-aided drafting software to draw up their plan.
They then create a wooden prototype to “figure out the quirks,” Bevilacqua said. Following the prototype stage, the team cuts metal, fabricates parts, builds its electrical system, and assembles the robot to be sent away to competition.
“It’s a long process,” Bevilacqua said.
At competitions, the girls go through several rounds, operating the robot on the “field” and working out any kinks in the pit. Bevilacqua described competition as “so fun, so lively.”
“There’s dancing in the stands and screaming, specifically from us because we are all girls,” Bevilacqua said with a laugh.
There are also two subteams that run the non-technical operations: business and media. These teams receive help from mentors as well.
“We’re like a small business, so even though we’re [a technical team], there’s a non-technical team,” Bevilacqua said. “You really have to deal with real world problems to make sure you get what you want.”
On the business side of things, the team must fundraise so they can buy the necessary supplies for their robot.
Giulia Watkins, 17, of Point Breeze, serves as the media leader this year. Her responsibilities include updating social media, taking photographs and video, blogging and documenting meetings.
Using Facebook, Watkins has been promoting a fundraiser and doing giveaways to encourage people to “like” their page, gifting lucky followers with a t-shirt sporting the team’s very appropriate mascot: Rosie the Riveter.
Watkins said she values the real world experience she gains from Girls of Steel Robotics.
“I haven’t gone to college yet, but I’ve heard there aren’t a lot of females in [STEM] fields,” Watkins said. “We are getting exposed to it earlier, so that when we do go to college we’re more familiar with it and know what we’re doing.”
For more information on Girls of Steel Robotics, visit www.girlsofsteelrobotics.com or search for “Girls of Steel Robotics Team” on Facebook.