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Girl Power: Student-Made Bots Break Down Gender Barriers in Science and Engineering Competition [Slide Show]

Dean Kamen's FIRST robotics program celebrates 20 years of turning education into an arena sport
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COURTESY LARRY GREENEMEIER/SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

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When inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen launched his FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition two decades ago, he hoped to turn engineering into a contact sport and engineering students into superstars. Judging by the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) held recently in New York City—which included waving mascots, bleachers filled with screaming fans, and dozens of robots throwing down—he has succeeded.

In particular, the FIRST competitions (there are four in total open to ages six through 18) have attracted a few all-girl teams, despite the fact that adolescent and teenage girls can be a hard-to-reach demographic when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Team members share responsibility for designing and building their robots as well as writing the necessary software.

The Fe Maidens (a clever play on the periodic table symbol for iron and the heavy metal band Iron Maiden) from The Bronx High School of Science in New York City have been competing at FRC for the past five years, and in 2010 earned a trip to the finals in Atlanta. "Our real goal as a girls' team is to dispel all those stereotypes that girls have about girls in engineering," says Leena Chan, team captain and a senior at Bronx Science. Team co-captain and Bronx Science junior Nicole Calace adds, "Girls should be interested in science and technology because it's a really interesting field. It's important to learn how we can all affect the world and make it a better place."

This year's NYC FRC featured 66 teams from across the globe competing in a game called Logo Motion. The concept was straightforward—design and build a robot that could pick up inflatable game pieces (triangles, circles and squares each about a meter in the diameter) and hang them on pegs protruding from walls on either side of the 8.2- by 16.4-meter playing floor.

Execution, however, is anything but straightforward, thanks to the game's nuances. Teams earned extra points if their robots could autonomously hang pieces during the first 15 seconds of each match. During this period, teams could only look on from the sidelines and hope that their bot's programming behaved according to plan.

After the autonomous period teams had two minutes to manipulate their robots remotely via joysticks to collect and hang game pieces. The Fe Maidens designed their robot with its center of gravity toward the back, so it would not tip over as it was being driven around the playing floor, says Bronx Science senior Mindy Chen, the team's head of construction. This was a challenge because the robot features a mechanical arm designed to scoop up game pieces and extend so that it can place these pieces on pegs as high as three meters from the floor, she adds.

Teams received an even bigger bonus during each match's final 20 seconds if they could deploy a minibot from their main robot that could climb one of four three-meter poles located toward the center of the floor. This marked the first time in the FRC's history that teams needed to create more than one robot during their six-week build season, which kicked off January 8.

"This year, when we found out there was going to be a second robot, we were a little worried, but it was also a really exciting aspect of the game this year because it was so new," says Calace, who headed up the Fe Maidens' software development efforts. As with all FRC teams, the Maidens needed to write code so that their robots would respond remotely to computer and joystick commands during each match. "I've always wanted to learn how to program, so when I joined robotics and found out there would be an opportunity to learn about programming, I was really excited," she adds. "I just picked it up as I went along."

Each match consisted of six teams split up into two alliances. "The alliances are a way for FIRST to encourage cooperation amongst teams, where you have three different teams joined together into one alliance and competing against a second alliance for every match," Chan says. These alliances were critical in that they helped compensate for different teams' strengths and weaknesses. If, for instance, a team performed well during the autonomous period but failed to deploy their minibot successfully, they would scout the competition for a team that was a strong finisher.

In the end the Fe Maidens walked away with the competition's Entrepreneurship Award given to the team that has presented the best overall business plan, which includes a team description and mission statement. It was not enough, however, to move the Maidens on to the championship round in Saint Louis next month. That honor will be taken up by the top NYC alliance that includes teams from Morris High School in Bronx, N.Y.; Hawaii's Waialua High School; and Plainedge High School in Massapequa, N.Y.

View a slide show of the year's NYC FRC

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