Engineering teamwork: Howard County all-girls robotics team crafts solutions to real-world problems

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

It’s a Tuesday night and the Laurel Legobots team is hard at work.

The robotics team members just spent an hour rehearsing a presentation of how to use the handmade, solar-powered water distiller they built. The box-shaped machine, built out of plexiglass, wood and plastic pipe, sits atop a kitchen table ready for use.

Next the group splits off, and two teammates get to work tinkering with a Lego robot. The robot rests in the corner of a tabletop course laid out with different routes, levers and switches for it to navigate — if programmed correctly.

Saanvi Thakre, 13, sits at the computer, coding new programs, while Alisa Hira, 12, adjusts the robot’s limbs and wheels. The two banter, debating what codes will get the robot to move accurately.

“There’s a lot of trial and error,” said Saanvi, a seventh-grader at Murray Hill Middle School. “It can take half-an-hour just to get it to go straight.”

Saanvi and Alisa are on the all-girls, middle-school-aged robotics five-member team that participates in competitions for the FIRST Lego League.

In December, the girls won a 30-team competition at Columbia’s Hammond High School, where they were one of a handful of all-female teams. On Feb. 24 they are scheduled to head to the state competition at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Dubbed the “Laurel Legobots,” the girls are one of several local FIRST Lego teams, a two-part competition program that challenges teams to create a solution for a real-world problem as well as design, build and program a robot. The global league has over 35,000 teams across 88 countries, to inspire kids to explore science, technology, engineering and math — STEM — subjects.

Teamwork is a core component of FIRST; judges critique teams based on the strength of their project and their robots’ ability to complete tasks, as well as team members’ “gracious professionalism” and “coopertition,” encouraging high quality work and respect for others amid competition.

The theme for this year’s FIRST Lego League competitions is “hydrodynamics” and participants were challenged to identify and solve a problem in the way humans use and transport water.

The Laurel team designed a water distiller to bring clean drinking water to Puerto Rican residents in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The project involved months of research, construction and consulting with experts including university professors and Federal Emergency Management Agency professionals.

“We get to do these cool projects,” said Gabby Cunningham, 11, a fifth-grader at Gorman Crossing Elementary School. “It’s really unique. No other groups let you build and let you solve real world problems and learn to be a team.”

FEMA supervisor Tim Allen, who works in Puerto Rico, said he was impressed by the quality of the team’s project.

“They came up with some really good criteria for the product and then developed towards that,” Allen said. “Out here in Puerto Rico the ability to purify salt water would be very important, so the system they came up with addressed both salt and dirty fresh water. They came up with a good solution for running without existing electricity, which is a big deal here where less than half the folks have reliable electricity.”

“They have a really interesting project, it’s science for a purpose,” said Howard University biology professor George Middendorf, who consulted on the construction of the group’s distiller. “I just was very impressed with how much they’d done. Especially because having a daughter myself, I don’t see girls doing that kind of thing that much.”

The gender disparity in STEM-related fields, whether in the academic or professional world, is clear. Women make up less than 20 percent of undergraduates in engineering and computer science and only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Science Foundation.

At the University of Maryland, the Women in Engineering Program was established in 1995 to foster a supportive female engineering community, promote women in the field and help retain women in the university’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, where women make up 23 percent of undergraduate students and 21 percent of graduate students.

Assistant Director of Outreach for the program, Becky Kenemuth, said that at any age, providing women and girls with a strong community is one of the key factors in retaining women in STEM fields.

“We want to engage girls early to build confidence in their capacity to be engineers,” Kenemuth said. “There’s a lot of social norms that teach girls that they should be pretty and perfect and leave tinkering and exploring to the guys, but we want to show girls that they are smart and capable to be great mathematics and scientists.”

Anna Packy is a junior mechanical engineering and kinesiology major in the Women in Engineering program, and said its support helped her stay confident in classes where she faces a room almost entirely of men.

“I don’t think it’s intimidating for there to be more men, sometimes there might just be that added pressure of, ‘Hey I belong here too, I want to make sure you notice that I’m trying to get an education the same as you,’” Packy, 21, said.

Packy, who hopes to one day build prosthetics, encouraged younger girls to join activities such as robotics teams.

“Realize that the other women around you are in your same shoes, and they would love the support just as you would,” she said. “It helps to know that you’re not in that situation alone.”

Camaraderie is apparent among the Laurel Legobots, who tease and joke with one another one minute and launch into a debate over what programming technique to try with their robot the next. All five girls said they plan to participate in the league next year.

“I thought I’d just build stuff, I didn’t think I’d actually program,” said Shreeya Thakre, 11, a fifth-grader at Gorman Crossing. “And I’m good at programming.”

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