A first FIRST for Tahoma robotics club
By TJ MARTINELL
Covington Reporter Reporter
October 7, 2012 · Updated 8:03 AM
Tahoma senior Mackenzie Dowel wasn’t the first girl to join a robotics club.
But last weekend as a part of her senior project she held the first FIRST off-season competition exclusively for girls in an effort to increase female participation in the club.
The competition involved 24 teams, including Tahoma’s, from robotics clubs in Washington. Dowel said the competition was virtually the same as any other robotic competition, aside from the lack of a Y chromosome.
The difference, Dowel said, is that it is the first off-season competition using FIRST Robotics equipment. In addition to a competition field, FIRST provided the electronic equipment, video, media, as well as the referees, albeit the Tahoma team set up the gym.
In the past, off-season competitions were unregulated. Dowel said FIRST Robotics used the competition as a training opportunity for their volunteers, including the referees and technical assistants. Due to the positive feedback they’ve received, Dowel said the club plans to host it as an annual event from now on.
“We’re glad it turned out so successfully,” she said.
For Dowel, the event was less about gender and more of an opportunity for the girls to get involved in various aspects of the competition that are usually dominanted by boys, who make up majority of the teams. It was also a chance to help robotics clubs move away from stereotypes as male nerds ala “Big Bang Theory” — the TV show, that is, not the theory on how the universe came into existence.
Numbers has always been Dowel’s forte because unlike writing, she says, it is less subjective. Even when she was at Tahoma Middle School, she was already attending Tahoma Robotics Club competitions through the sister of Brian Andrews, one of the clubs original members. When she finally joined her sophomore year at Tahoma High it was apparent to her the club was primarily comprised of boys. While Tahoma had a stronger balance, she also noticed from observing other teams at competitions boys tended to gravitate toward certain aspects of the club, such as working on the robot’s wiring and programming, while the girls leaned toward the design and media-type roles.
Even as club president, however, Dowel said she tends to stay away from anything having to do with programming or the website.
“They don’t like me and the feeling is mutual,” she said.
Dowel was inspired to do the competition for her senior project after the Tahoma Robotics Club participated in an all girls competition in Oregon, which she was unable to attend. When the team returned, however, they spoke so highly of it the club suggested someone organize a similar competition as a senior project. Dowel volunteered, partially out of a desire to encourage more girls to join the club as well as give girls like senior Emily Burlison a chance to try out new roles.
Burlison normally serves as a scout for the team, gathering intelligence about the other teams that is eventually turned into data for the team strategist, the role Burlison took over on Saturday. The strategist then works in conjunction with two others team as part of an alliance, albeit the teams in the alliance change from match to match.
“I thought it would be a lot of fun because guys tend to take over,” Burlison said. “There’s way more boys in robotics.”
In order to prepare for the robotics competition — a process Dowel described as ‘overwhelming’ — she went about contacting various schools during the summer. Since the teachers were on break, however, many of them did not respond to her emails until school resumed, which left her uncertain as to how many teams she would have.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “It takes a lot of time and hours. People are always willing to help. You still have a lot on your plate and it helps so much.”
Then, when she finally began to receive confirmations from the teams, she realized the competition field would only allow 24 teams to compete. Several of the teams were First Tech Challenge level, which is lower than Tahoma’s FIRST Robotics Competition, and were forced to withdraw from the event. In all, 21 teams competed. Though Tahoma was a finalist, the team ultimately lost in the final match.
Still, Dowel said they managed to achieve what they had set out to do by learning more about other sides of the team.
“Our highlight was probably when the robot was running perfectly,” she said. “We had so many problems during the beginning, and then we got them all fixed, and when the match started nothing was broken. And then it started going downhill again.”
Despite being an all-girls event, the boys were still there to cheer them on, even if it was tongue-in-cheek by wearing wigs, glitter and tutus. And while they didn’t participate, Dowel said the boys nevertheless were more than willing to offer “ technical advice” when problems with the robot arose.
“There are some girls who do what they’re doing from last year but there was the occasionally ‘OK, go find this boy and talk to him about it,’” Dowel said. “It’s something we didn’t have to fix before. They still had to fix it, but they had to find someone on how to fix it first. We had a little bit of guy help, but the girls still did the work.”
Contact Covington Reporter Reporter TJ Martinell at email@example.com or 425-432-1209 ext. 5052.