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The Making of an All-Girls Robotics Team

Posted Monday, November 17, 2014 at 2:01 PM

Associate Program Officer, National Academy of Engineering

"Mariah Reyes asked a simple question of her robotics coach that had surprising results."

The Making of an All-Girls Robotics Team

PostedMonday, November 17, 2014 at 2:08 PM

The Making of an All-Girls Robotics Team

Questions about how to get more girls into engineering are common. The need for a diverse talent pool to tackle the nation’s most pressing problems weighs upon policy makers and educators alike, but sometimes change is most effective when it is student-led.

Cass Lake-Bena High School in Cass Lake, Minnesota surprised observers last year when not one, but two teams competed in the FIRST robotics North Star Regional competition at the University of Minnesota. The reason for two teams may not have been obvious, but it all started the year before when the lone female on the team named Mariah Reyes, then a sophomore, asked a simple question of two of her coaches.

 “Why don’t we have an all-girls team?”

Reyes believed that an all-girls team might encourage more girls to become involved. Her question spurred conversations between coaches and mentors that led to student polls and an examination of competition rules. Finally sponsors were sought, board approval was given, and the all-girls team was born.

The experiment worked overwhelmingly. The team, calling themselves the Accelerators, began their first season with a group of more than 16 female students, and a cooperative competition between both school teams ensued.

I had the opportunity to talk to Ms. Reyes to find out a little more about what inspired her and how she felt about the transformation of her robotics program. Reyes said she was interested in robotics because of her brother. He was born with a deformed hand which inspired her desire to work in prosthetics and design machines that could help people. She joined the robotics team at her high school, but felt that the mostly-male environment could be intimidating. Being shy herself she hoped more girls would be willing to participate if they could work together without the extra pressure of having to stand out against the rest of the team. 

Reyes said she didn’t really expect that an all-girls team was possible at her school. With a student body of only 200 students and a limited budget for extra-curricular programs she didn’t think two teams could work, but she did think it was worth trying. She passed a sign-up sheet around the school asking girls to write their name if they might be interested in the team and got a whopping 75 names! 

When asked why she thought so many girls were interested she said, “the head coach and the assistant coach…said if I got girls to sign up they’d be my mascot, but they still haven’t put on a dress for me yet.” 

Of course, not all 75 ended up joining the team, but the 16 that did participate reported such a positive experience that Reyes says many more girls are interested for the next year. She reports that the experience helped her and others on the team to come out of their shells. Being on a team in which she felt comfortable helped give her the confidence to reach out to others for help and even to give support and advice to the other teams. 

I asked Reyes if she had advice for other girls who are interested in engineering but don’t feel comfortable in the programs at their schools. Her advice was to, “Keep going for it!” After all, being able to make changes where they are needed is what engineering is all about.