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Leveling the Playing Field for Girls in STEM

With the help and leadership of three parent coaches, a team of 6th grade Buchser Middle School students have recently been competing in local robotics competitions. The competitions are powered by VEX Robotics, in partnership with coaches from Google and Girl Scouts of Northern California in an attempt to level the playing field for girls in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM).

The all-girl team — “The Petatas” —  self-selected their name using a twist on the word ‘potato.’ They practice every Friday night, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at one of the Mountain View Google campuses demonstrating their dedication to robot building and programming. The team operates independently of the school and wholly outside the instructional day, but that’s not to say that they don’t have teacher support.

The team’s journey initially began in the Fall of the 2017-2018 school year at Hughes Elementary School with basic coding in teacher Margaret Wysoki’s 5th grade classroom. At the request of a parent, Wysoki rounded up a group of students for an all-girls VEX Robotics Competition in August of 2018.

“After teaching coding for the past 4-5 years, my goal last year was to make the leap into robotics,” said Wysoki. “With the support of our tech TOSAs, and George Garcia specifically, we built robots to model pollination.”

At their first competition in August, the team was given a toolbox of prescribed supplies, a set of directions, and told that in order to compete on the field their robot needed to pass inspection by early Sunday afternoon. They then spent all day Saturday working on their robot and passed inspection on the third visit to the judges.

“There is something electric about being in a room of over 400 girls, all working as teams to complete the same goal,” said Wysoki. “But it was a tough beginning. The girls needed to learn how to use the tools, how to carefully follow the directions, how to share in the responsibility of the build.”

The first 15 seconds of the competition is the autonomous portion where the robot scores points by performing tasks based solely on the programming the team has written and downloaded to the robot’s computer. Next, there is a one-minute forty-five-second driver-led portion, where, in an alliance of two teams, they try to outscore the other alliance by scoring as many points as possible.  

According to Wysoki who mentors from afar, the students had never held a screwdriver before let alone knew the difference between a traditional screw and a set screw. The parent coaches decided that for the young, inexperienced team, ‘success’ would be measured by completing the build and passing inspection — anything above that would be a bonus. Not only did the team meet their goal, but they surpassed it competing in 3-4 for matches, even scoring points in the driver-led portion on the field.

Since August, the Petatas have entered two more competitions, most recently on January 12. They are creative and collaborative and have shown commitment to their practices and their team. In a few short months, they have not only competed against teams from the Bay Area, but also against teams from all over the state of California. The team is one of the youngest in the competition, but the older teams, many of whom are high school students, have been supportive.

Stay tuned for another robotics story next month.