Girls robotics team in competition

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Patti Rote of Shadyside had been judging robotics competitions for years when she decided to help more girls learn about robotics by building robots.

"In 2010, things started to brew in my mind on how to get the girls involved in the hands-on activities," said Ms. Rote, who founded the nonprofit Pittsburgh Robotic Initiative 15 years ago with funds from the Heinz Endowments.

She approached professors at Carnegie Mellon University for help and got roboticist George Kantor to agree to her plan.

Ms. Rote gathered 20 female students together, and the Girls of Steel robotics team was born in 2011. It is the only all-girl team in the Pittsburgh area.

Made up of students in grades 9-12, the team meets several days a week at the CMU Field Robotics Center on campus and takes part in competitions. Its members come from 18 schools and also include home-schooled and cyber school students. One girl commutes from Johnstown to the CMU campus to take part.

During its first year, the Girls of Steel won two Rookie All-Star awards at the regional competition and competed in every match in the FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology -- world championship in St. Louis. In 2012, their second year, they won the Engineering Inspiration Award and again competed in the world championships.

The mission of FIRST is to inspire young people to become leaders in science and technology. It has been staging robotics championships for more than 20 years. Ms. Rote, a consultant for startup robotics companies, is the FIRST program manager for CMU and also a mentor for Girls of Steel, involved mostly with fundraising.

This year, two all-girl teams were among those that took part in the FIRST regional competition March 14-16 in Pittsburgh. The competitors' task, titled "Ultimate Ascent," was to have the robots play Frisbee and climb a three-rung pyramid.

At the regional competition, teams from as far away as Ontario and Virginia contended for a chance to go to the world championship. In 11 matches, the Girls of Steel had five wins and six losses and again won the Engineering Inspiration Award, qualifying for the world event April 25-27 in St. Louis.

"The award comes with a $5,000 grant, which will cover the registration for the [world] competition," said Terry Richards, FIRST robotics program coordinator, who helped Ms. Rote recruit girls for the team and who serves as one of its mentors.

In the world competition, about 400 teams will attempt to complete the same task, using the same robot, with no modifications. After the regional event, all robots were sealed in plastic bags, which will not be opened until the world contest begins.

Wireless control

The Girls of Steel robot, named EVE, operates autonomously for part of the competition, but most of the time, the girls use a wireless video game controller. The robot is named after the robotic girlfriend in the movie "WALL-E."

Grace Brueggman, 15, a freshman at Bethel Park High School, learned about the Girls of Steel through her father, Richard Brueggman, a judge in the competition. Grace attended the regional competition and enjoyed it so much, she applied to join Girls of Steel last summer. For this year's game, she worked on the finance and mechanical teams, helping with fundraising and construction of the robot.

"When this year's game was announced, I was very excited but baffled by how we'd be able to have the robot play Frisbee and climb the pyramid," she said.

At the competitions, three teams are grouped together as an "alliance," which is pitted against another three-team alliance. As manager of scouting, Grace recorded how the other team robots functioned to determine which would be most compatible in an alliance with the Girls of Steel.

"Before the games, I had plans to become a lawyer," Grace said. "Now I've decided to go into something in the line of engineering, probably mechanical engineering."

Katie Shreve, 16, a junior at Plum Senior High School, is a two-year member of Girls of Steel and went to the world championship last year. For this year's game, she was part of the mechanical team, using a computer program to design the robot, create drawings of individual parts, make the parts in the machine shop and assemble them.

"In Girls of Steel, I learned a lot about robotics, and it spurred my original intention to become a mechanical engineer," Katie said. "I also made a lot of friends, who've become like a second family to me."

In addition to preparing for the world competition, she is planning to organize a FIRST LEGO robotics league for younger children, who will use Lego parts to build robots and then enter them in competitions.

"The ultimate goal of FIRST is to inspire more students, including girls, to go into the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math," Ms. Rote said. "That's where the future of our country lies."


Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer:


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