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All-Girls Robotics Team Heads to Nationals

Team 3504, AKA Girls of Steel, had six weeks to design and build a robot for the FIRST robotics competition. Photo courtesy of The Girls of Steel.
Team 3504, AKA "Girls of Steel," had six weeks to design and build a robot for the FIRST robotics competition. Photo courtesy of The Girls of Steel.

An all-girls team mentored by Carnegie Mellon University will be heading to a national robotics competition later this month. The Girls of Steel, a first-year robotics team, has won Rookie All-Star Awards at regional robotics competitions in both Pittsburgh and Washington, DC, earning the invitation to the larger gathering in St. Louis, April 27-30.

The events are put on by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a non-profit started by Segway creator and inventor Dean Kamen.

Team 3504, as it's also known, had six weeks to design and build a robot to FIRST specs that could place blow-up tubes on high pegs and then deploy mini-bots to travel up a 10-foot pole to hit sensors. As part of the competition's efforts to foster collaboration, all matches are played by three-team alliances going up against other three-team groupings. According to Carnegie Mellon, the team performed so well in the seeding rounds, it was chosen for an alliance by Creativity In Action, a highly seeded team, which helped it continue to the elimination rounds.

Girls of Steel includes girls from 11 Pittsburgh area high schools, one from a distance learning school, and three from schools outside the Pittsburgh area. Carnegie Mellon's Field Robotics Center hosts the team. However, this isn't the only all-girls team competing. At the Pittsburgh event, St. Mildred's Women Advancing Technology (SWAT), team 771, from a private all-girls' high school from Toronto vied as well; in Washington, the Firebirds, a team from a girls' school in Flourtown, PA, participated.

"Both of [the other teams] were really interesting to talk to," said Jaden, a member of Girls of Steel who attends Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, an online school. "They gave us tips on how to improve our business plans, discussed mini-bot failures and successes, and shared their resources with us. One of the things I love most about FIRST is the culture of 'coopertition.' It's not just a competition. FIRST is a place where using your intelligence and creativity together is rewarded. FIRST encourages cooperating not only with your team, but also collaborating with other teams to make your robots work better than you ever expected."

Through the experience of building their robots, team members gain experience in electronics, design, programming, the use of power tools, fundraising, marketing, and other topics.

The commitment isn't taken lightly by participants. Said Jaden, "Winning the Rookie All-Star awards was amazing for my team--it means so much to us. It means that our 40 hours of work each week and up to hour commutes four to six times a week were worth it. We started from ground zero, knowing little to nothing about how to work the basic machine tools, let alone designing a robot. Now we can all use the drill press, mill, and lathe to make parts that we design, CAD, and finally prototype. It's amazing how far we've come."

The team has posted a video showing the Pittsburgh seeding match here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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