Western 'RoboDoves' soaring in robotics

With help from mentors, the team members built a basketball shooting robot nicknamed ROBODoves, in six weeks.
With help from mentors, the team members built a basketball shooting robot nicknamed ROBODoves, in six weeks. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Each member of the Western High School Robotics team brings a range of individual strengths that help them compete, everything from a knack for maneuvering a remote control to extraordinary math and science skills. But, they say, they also have a competitive edge that's harder to match: girl power.

It's what members on the all-girl team — called the "RoboDoves" after Western's mascot — say has helped them soar onto the national and international robotics scene, an intellectual sport that has traditionally been dominated by males and suburban school districts.

Next month, Western will head to Anaheim, Calif., to compete in the 2012 VEX Robotics High School World Championship. While it's the fourth time in the team's five-year existence that it has competed in the international competition, members humbly acknowledge that the opportunity is a win in and of itself.

Western is the only all-female high school team in the city and the only all-female team in Maryland that has qualified to head to California to bot-battle teams from Vancouver to Singapore. So far, it's also the only Baltimore team that has qualified for the world championship.

"We've gone from a little side team to building our name in a male-dominated sport," said Amber Matthew, a senior at Western and captain of the RoboDoves team. "We just wanted to come together and show that yes, we are girls, and yes, we are doing this — well."

The team competes in both VEX and FIRST robotics, two competitions that Matthew said primarily differ in size and technicalities. FIRST robotics are larger and usually involve more extravagant features, she said, while VEX are smaller and more intricate.

The RoboDoves' most recent masterpiece was a roughly 4-foot-tall basketball-playing bot, which will compete in a two-day regional competition at the Baltimore Convention Center this Friday and Saturday. More than 1,000 students, including teams from Baltimore schools, will participate in the 2012 Chesapeake Regional FIRST Robotics Competition, themed "Rebound Rumble."

The girls had six weeks to design and build the robot, and they did it in five. That included programming it to operate by way of remote controls. At a practice competition Thursday, the robot made its second attempt at a basket. The team will battle another robot, a VEX, at the world championship.

"These girls are the reason why I teach at Western," said Heather Romney, one of the team's two coaches who also teaches technology and Advanced Placement studio art. "They've grown a lot and have really come together as a team this year."

The RoboDoves branched out to form their own team in 2008, after years of competing on the robotics team at Polytechnic Institute. Until this year, Western was the only all-female team in the city. The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, an all-girls middle school, formed a team this year.

The RoboDoves have grown in numbers and popularity, from a group of eight rookies four years ago, to a team of 14 that posted some of its best marks last year. The team, whose gender-makeup drew as much of a crowd as its robot, placed 23rd out of 100 teams for its creativity in the 2011 VEX world championship's engineering division.

When Ron Karpinsky, a retired engineer who worked for both Bethlehem Steel Corp. and Mitsubishi Materials Corp., was recruited to help Poly's team in 2007, he said he noticed that the girls' contributions rarely received recognition.

Karpinsky believed that Western shouldn't be in Poly's shadow and signed on to help the team start from scratch the following year.

"The something special they come with is a clean slate, without preconceived notions, armed only with curiosity and wonder," Karpinsky said. "It takes a little longer since they don't know what an 8-32 machine screw is, but soon enough they are cutting plywood with a portable saw, cutting aluminum on a band saw or cutting a steel pipe using a friction table saw."

The gruff career engineer added that working with girls helped him lighten up: "No matter how serious I try to be, when something goes awry the reaction is to giggle. After a while I realized that's a good thing."

In the last two years, the city school system joined a national trend of emphasizing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs in schools. But four years ago, the programs were rare in the district, and female students were even less likely to be in those classes.

In 2010, Western, a historic and renowned all-girls high school, began offering a robotics course, in which six students enrolled; this year 50 are enrolled.

"At first I didn't want to join because it involved science and math," said Jasmine Smith, a senior and co-captain of the team, who said that her grades in geometry and physics rose after joining the team in her sophomore year.

Robotics also has helped the RoboDoves spread their wings in other areas of their lives. At a recent team meeting, the girls spoke of how the team has helped them confront personal and academic challenges and helped reshape their career goals.

Former team members have received full scholarships to college, including two to the Johns Hopkins University.

Matthew decided after joining the team to study bio-medical engineering instead of medicine in college, and received a full scholarship to participate in the Summer Engineering Innovation course at Hopkins last summer. She hopes to attend Harrisburg University of Science and Technology or the University of Maryland, College Park.

Standout student athlete Keimmie Booth wanted to see if she could make a name for herself and her hometown in a different arena.

"Saying you're an athlete from Baltimore, people love you for that," said Booth, a junior who also plays soccer and basketball. "If you said you're a robotics team from Baltimore, they didn't get that. They saw us as city kids who couldn't do anything. But now we're like the Lakers of robotics."

Indya Dodson, a junior, learned that her aspirations to become an aerospace engineer could be more than just a dream after joining the team. She teared up as she spoke of her increasing self-confidence.

"I've done things I never thought I could do," Dodson said. "I'm a person who struggles with things and wants to quit."

"But, if I can build a robot," she added, her voice cracking, "well, you know…"