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Girls of Steel: Shattering the Robotics Glass Ceiling

October 25, 2016

By Meg Hogan. Lead Image by Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

Every once in awhile a great group of young people come along and prove that there’s more to Generation Z than Snapchatting and growing up with a cell phone glued to their hands. In Pittsburgh, one of those groups is the Girls of Steel Robotics.

Made up of girls from about 30 different schools in the Pittsburgh region, the group works year-round to design, build and compete with robots. Part of their work includes increasing awareness of the group, which is why they go to events like the Rec2Tech Demo Party.

Rec2Tech demo party today!!

A photo posted by Girls Of Steel FRC Team 3504 (@girlsofsteelrobotics) on

The team was established in 2010 with local and national sponsors including Disney, Verizon, Comcast NBCUniversal and American Eagle Outfitters. Rosie the Riveter with a robotic arm acts as a core symbol of their group and the girls wear red-with-white-polka-dotted bandanas as they build the robots, participate in competitions and attend outreach events.

Their mission: “Empowering women and girls in the pursuit of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by exemplifying female success in robotics.” Their female-focused efforts have even drawn the attention of former secretary of state and current presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Each season brings new challenges and themes to build robots around. The group currently has 45 to 50 members from schools throughout the Western Pennsylvania region, according to member Corinne Hartman. Hartman attends the Ellis School in Shadyside and was one of the members at the Demo Party.

Girls of Steel participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition, known as the “ultimate sport for the mind.” During this completion, students from all over the United States go all-in and raise funds, design a team brand and build robots to compete in a game against competitors.

In January we find out the challenge,” Hartman explains. “We have six weeks to build [the robot], and then we put it in a bag and zip tie it and we’re not allowed to touch it until the competition,” she says.

The Girls of Steel symbol, Rosie the Riveter with a robotic arm, at the Rec2Tech Demo Party. Image: Meg Hogan.

The Girls of Steel symbol, Rosie the Riveter with a robotic arm, at the Rec2Tech Demo Party. Image: Meg Hogan.

Competition season beings at the end of February and goes through the end of April. The competitions are tiered, with regional competitions serving as the first round followed by the World Championships. Teams go head-to-head and compete against each other’s robots.

The young women build the robots at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the Field Robotics Center. This location is central for the 600 square-mile area that the participants come from. “There’s access to space and machines,” Hartman says. “We get to work alongside people – professionals or people still in school – which is cool.”

As part of their outreach efforts, the Girls of Steel provide disassembled chassis robots with a set of instructions. “We’re there to guide them along the way,” Hartman explains. In addition to helping people learn how to assemble a robot, they do other demonstrations of full-scale robots, presentations and even gift wrapping at Barnes and Noble during the holiday season. At those events, “We get to talk to people about our team,” she says.

Because their non-competition season goes from May through December, the girls are open to attending outreach events to get to know an organization or group better. “If someone calls us up [and invites us to an event], we try to find [members of Girls of Steel] to go. We’ve been to over 50 outreach events,” Hartman says.

Keep an eye out for Girls of Steel at festivals and events throughout Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas. If you’re interested in learning more about the group, or know a young woman who may want to join, visit their website, or to keep it going, you can donate.