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Pittsburgh's Girls of Steel Robotics Team Advances to Championship

Walt Urbina / Courtesy Photo

With women earning less than 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in physics, engineering and computer science, some might consider Becca Volk an anomaly, but among her teammates on Pittsburgh’s all-female Girls of Steel competitive robotics team, Volk fits right in. The 16 yr. old junior at Avonworth High School knows she wants to be an engineer someday.

On March 28, Girls of Steel won the Chairman’s Award at the Buckeye Regional FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) in Cleveland, which qualifies the team to compete in the FRC Championship April 22-25 in St. Louis.

To participate in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and technology) competitions, teams have to build and program their own robots to complete certain tasks. This year’s task is actually a game. It's called “Recycling Rush,” and in it the robots compete to stack square and round bins into a formation, Volk said.

This will be the fifth year Girls of Steel has competed at the championship level. The fifty-member team includes Pittsburgh-area young women in grades 8-12, and is sponsored by the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

George Kantor is a senior systems scientist at CMU’s Robotic Institute. He and fellow CMU employee Patti Rote co-founded the team five years ago with the intention of encouraging young women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“The FIRST organization has this mission of spreading the word of technology—that technology is fun, that it’s accessible to everyone,” Kantor said. “And our team mission, which is to get girls and young women involved and excited in STEM fields fits very well with the FIRST mission.”

According to Kantor, Girls of Steel focuses heavily on community outreach programs. Team members give presentations about the team’s robot and their love for engineering and robotics at places such as Carnegie Science Center. The girls also teach at summer camps and host educational and interactive programs for kids who want to build their own robots.

The Girls of Steel received national attention when Don Hall, co-director of the Disney movie Big Hero 6, mentioned them as inspiration for two of the movie’s female characters, Honey Lemon and Go Go Tomago. Kantor said Hall visited CMU three years ago to learn more about the robotics the movie is based on. When Hall was introduced to the Girls of Steel, he was motivated to include female engineers in his film.

Volk said the best part of participating in Girls of Steel and the robotics competitions is making connections with girls who think like her.

“You get to meet people from all around the world in some cases and it’s really awesome to see and hear their stories…it’s really awesome to be in an environment where that’s accepted and encouraged,” Volk said.