October 20, 2014 – The all-girls robotics team from St. Mary’s Academy in Englewood, Colorado took second place in the 2014 Rocky Mountain BEST Competition on Saturday and will advance to the regional robotics competition in Fort Smith, Arkansas on December 5-6, 2014.
While it may not seem unusual to have an all-girls team, the SMA High School Robotics Team, known as SMAbotics AG, is the first all-girls team to ever compete in the Rocky Mountain Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology (BEST) competition since its inception in 1993. This was their second year competing and they were one of 32 teams competing for the BEST award on a local level.
Robotics competitions are a microcosm of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) industry, where women remain sadly under-represented. Women make up less than a quarter of the STEM workforce in the United States and in some fields of engineering, the percentage of women drops to the single digits according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
From the earliest ages, girls are given baby dolls, while boys receive building sets. Boys are also more likely to have informal opportunities to explore science outside of school, whether it’s in after school or summer programs, or projects at home. Those early biases influence how boys and girls view their own abilities in STEM subjects and also how teachers view their students. Girls are less likely to think they are good at math and science and subsequently, are less likely to pursue STEM degrees.
Team Leader Morgan Wagner views those biases as a challenge. “We don’t view ourselves as a less capable team than the other male dominated teams, but more as a team that has to prove its abilities more than the others. It would be more devastating to fail as an all-girls team because that’s exactly what some people are expecting,” said Wagner, a senior at St. Mary’s. “At the same time, it’s exhilarating to succeed because you can prove everyone wrong. It’s the feeling of others seeing us differently that pushes us to test our limits.”
Teacher and mentor Dave Gesler wanted to tackle the STEM bias head-on by promoting the BEST program at St. Mary’s Academy and teaching the girls how to problem-solve while collaborating to create a robot. The girls now dedicate all of their after-school time, as well as Saturdays, to getting the project done. The team has learned how to design, build and program a robot, and in the process, they’ve learned a lot about themselves.
“Being a girl involved in this competition gives me a sense of empowerment. Gender equality in the STEM fields is on the rise and getting girls involved in these types of activities at middle and high school levels is vital in fostering that equality,” said Wagner.
In addition to Wagner, the team includes 2 freshmen, 2 sophomores, 6 juniors and 6 other seniors. Three mentors serve as guides and advisors. Several of the girls are interested in engineering as a career, and at least three of the seniors on the team, including Wagner, are applying to colleges to pursue engineering degrees.
There is no cost to participate in the BEST program. Each participating team is provided with identical kits containing all the materials and equipment necessary to build a robot for the BEST competition. Approximately 6 weeks before the competition, teams are given the game rules for that year’s competition and it’s up to the team to design and build a robot to meet the specifications.
2014 Competition Results:
* These teams qualified for the Regional Championship which will take place in Ft. Smith, Arkansas on December 5 & 6, 2014!