Western High School's RoboDoves crushes the competition, stereotypes
By By Andrew Zaleski
For The Baltimore Sun|
Nov 12, 2014 at 8:09 AM
Indya Dodson is living a life far different from what she imagined.
Growing up, Dodson had designs to become an actress. But now the 18-year-old sophomore at Capitol Technology University in Laurel is studying software engineering and Web development. When she graduates, she'd like to become a software and app developer.
Dodson credits her changed goals to being a member of the RoboDoves, the competitive robotics team at the all-female Western High School on Falls Road in Baltimore.
"I joined the team because one of my friends was on the team," Dodson said. "I had no interest in technology or engineering whatsoever. And I really fell in love with it. It really stuck with me."
Since the team's founding in 2008, the RoboDoves have conceived, designed and built their own remote-controlled robots that range from a couple of feet tall to more than 5 feet and more than 100 pounds. Smaller robots take a couple of weeks to build, while larger ones are built over several weeks.
The robots are programmed to perform specific tasks — launching a Frisbee, tossing a basketball through a hoop, or climbing makeshift towers, among other commands — in competitions put on by VEX Robotics and FIRST, two academic robotics programs that high school students worldwide participate in.
Once the RoboDoves are finished constructing and programming their robots, they battle against other high school robotics teams in Baltimore and from around the world in local, regional and international competitions. While the events differ slightly — VEX competitions give teams the opportunity to build several iterations of a robot over the course of a year, whereas FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) requires students to assemble and program a robot in six weeks — the object of the competitions is the same: Score the most points and declare your team the winner.
The RoboDoves are good, even dynastic. They've been to the VEX Robotics World Championship four times, traveling to places like California and Florida to compete. A shelf in their lab and workshop on the ground level of Western High School is nearly filled with awards. Just nearby: a drill press, circular saw and grinder, plus — as seen on a recent afternoon visit — chalkboards covered with the laws of motion, parabolic equations and other mathematical formulas that make reporters shudder.
Around Baltimore, the RoboDoves are a known, and revered, force. If the RoboDoves miss a competition, teams notice.
"Everyone is expecting us to come. People know who we are," said Dania Allgood, 17, a Western High School senior who has been a RoboDove since her freshman year. RoboDoves' head coach and Western High School technology and AP art teacher Heather Romney sums it up more pithily: "Girls like to compete just as much as boys."
This year the RoboDoves are trying something slightly different. They won't compete in any VEX competitions and will instead focus their energy on this year's FIRST event — what's called FRC, or FIRST Robotics Competition — which kicks off in January when the new robotics game and build-challenge are released. In previous years a team captain took charge; this year, the 15 girls on the team are divided into sub-teams with student leaders. Allgood, for instance, is the RoboDoves' programming team leader, and will keep everyone on point as students start coding robotic commands. Over six weeks, the team will have to build and program a robot to do whatever the game calls for.
"You have a really intense time crunch. You have deadlines. You have to respond to those. You build the best thing that you can, and then you go compete," said Romney.
For some RoboDoves, the thrill and challenge of the competitions help inform what they do after graduating. Several RoboDoves alumnae have gone on to study computing or engineering in college and are actively involved as mentors to other competitive robotics teams around Baltimore. Dodson is vice president of Capitol's chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.
Her former teammate Keimmie Booth, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Baltimore, studies computer information systems and mentors city robotics teams at the year-old Baltimore City Robotics Center in Hollins Market, a practice and competition space for city schools' robotics teams.
"[The RoboDoves] really helped me decide that [computer information systems] was my major," said Booth. "Being on the team definitely helped with networking and getting more involved with the Baltimore tech community."
The RoboDoves' continued success comes at a time when figuring out how to bring more women into technology fields has become a predominating question. Google, Facebook and Yahoo all issued statements earlier this summer saying they were committed to diversifying their staffs after data each released showed that women made up 17 percent or fewer of each company's tech workforce.
"It's a big challenge and it's a difficult time to attract women at that age, given the cultural stereotypes about men in computer science and engineering," said Linda Sax, a UCLA education professor researching the gender gap between men and women studying computer science in college. "In the past several decades these have been masculine fields in terms of perception by the public."
Since the mid-1980s, the percentage of women among those studying computer science in college has dropped from 35 percent to below 20 percent, according to National Science Foundation data. A National Public Radio segment that aired last month attributed part of this drop to the increased arrival around 1984 of personal computers in American homes, which were overwhelmingly marketed to men and boys.
Over time, the sorts of stereotypes Sax refers to — that girls aren't interested in computers, for instance — take root. The latest survey from the Computing Research Association shows that of about 10,000 computer science bachelor's degrees earned in 2013, women made up 14 percent of the recipients. "There's no sense of belonging there," said Sax, referring to why college-age women shy away from the computer science field.
There have been renewed attempts to market computer science to young women. National nonprofits like Girl Develop It, which launched a Baltimore chapter last January, try to bring women into technology fields by offering classes in software programming languages. Girls Who Code, another nonprofit, combines education in mobile and Web development with robotics instruction.
"It's a great way to inspire girls," said Ed Mullin, founder of the Baltimore City Robotics Center, of competitive robotics. "As soon as girls make it to the field and start playing, they are not sheepish about it. … They want to know more about all these different mechanical factors, about all these electrical [factors], because they want to do well."
Research in evaluating robotics programs' lasting effects is promising. Using survey data gathered in 2011 from 341 male and female students — 210 of them in high school — who took part in VEX Robotics, two Georgia Institute of Technology professors found that 89 percent of students overall wanted to learn more about computer programming because of their time in the robotics lab.
For RoboDove Librea' Moore, a 16-year-old junior, joining the team was a way to make things — at first. "I always liked working with my hands, so when I found out there was a robotics team here I was excited to join," she said. But she eventually discovered that her time in the robotics lab changed her opinion about the usefulness of what she was learning in math class.
"Parabolas, I didn't know what their use was for. And then I came here," she said.
Senior Allgood hopes her time with the team will not only help her earn a college scholarship, but also give her a leg up when she starts classes. "I want to do robotics engineering and cyber security, so by being the programming lead I can get a sense of programming," she said.
There are other benefits. Dalia Jernigan, a 16-year-old junior on the RoboDoves, describes the team as a "family outside of home." As Nala Scott, a 17-year-old junior, said: "On the RoboDoves, everybody has a part."
Scott is the RoboDoves build leader — she's the one who, come January, will make sure fellow teammates come to the lab to work on assembling their FIRST robot. Jernigan, as an outreach team leader, will spearhead fundraising efforts. It costs $5,000 for a returning team to compete in a FIRST regional competition.
Romney said it's important to keep in mind that robotics is only one way to draw girls into technology. But from day one of entering the lab, when new RoboDoves know little about the laws of motion or how to work a circular saw, students quickly develop a passion for building their own creations and tackling engineering challenges.
"The biggest thing is, they come in and they see an impossible problem, and then they realize that if they work on it step by step, they can actually solve the problem," said Romney. "It's great that they're learning some equations to apply to some particular engineering problem, but more important is they develop the confidence and the more general problem-solving skills of saying, 'I'm taking on this massive thing, and I'm able to break it down, and by breaking it down I'm going to create a solution.'"
In other words, the RoboDoves set their own place at the table — or, in this case, on the robotics competition field. And in doing so, they strengthen a team motto that all their fellow competitors can strive to emulate: "Drive like a girl."