June 19, 2019

For All-Girl Robotics Team, It’s Not Just About Building Robots

TEAM EFFORTS: Princeton YWCA’s all-girls robotics teams recently visited the Plainsboro offices of SES, a leading satellite operator, to report on their recent, award-winning season. The girls are shown with their coaches and staffers from SES, which contributes $10,000 a year to the program.

By Anne Levin

For the two teams of girls who have spent the past year building and engineering robots and taking them to competitions — many of which they have won — a gathering at the satellite operating company SES last week was a chance to show the experts what they have learned and what they plan for the future.

Some 40 staffers from SES attended the presentations. The YWCA’s Robotic Rockettes and Prototype G teams are familiar to the firm, which hired two of the girls as interns last summer and will host three of them this year.

“These young robotic rock stars are smart, confident, and possess extraordinary communication skills,” said Douglas Clayton, SES senior vice president, human resources. “They embody the entire talent package important to SES and, at a relatively young age, have inspired many of us. Ultimately, they provide a valuable pipeline of skills for SES’s future.”

The YWCA Princeton’s Robotics program for girls in grades 4-12 was launched three years ago as an effort to reduce gender and racial disparities in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) field. “Starting robotics was a dream,” said Cheryl Rowe-Rendleman, YWCA board member and CEO of Omar Consulting Group, at the gathering. “I didn’t know if we could pull this off. It’s not a light lift, it’s a heavy lift. It involves a lot of details, and coaches, and a lot of space.”

“I have to admit that at the time we started, I didn’t understand the complications of robotics,” said YWCA CEO Judy Hutton, this week. “We started with one team, and now we have four. They are doing phenomenal work. They are among the few all-girl teams out there. And they have had to learn how to advocate, because being girls, they still get some push-back. It’s been great to watch these girls grow and see what they do.”

Aparna Rajesh and Anjali Dhayagude, both juniors at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, represented their teams at the SES event. The program “teaches us a lot of skills outside of technology,” said Rajesh, “like teamwork, friendship, and perseverance; sharing your experiences and abilities with each other. We also have to work on public speaking skills. It encourages us to branch outward.”

Coaches of the teams make a point to push not only technical skills, but interpersonal attributes as well. “It’s about the whole person,” said Hutton. “It’s about volunteering, problem-solving, and public speaking. If you ever see them at their competitions, it’s so evident that they work as a team. And they are generous, too — if another team is having a problem, they help them out, even thought it’s a competition.”

There are 4,700 robotics teams across the globe. The girls have won multiple awards, including a world championship at FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) international high school robotics competitions. The YWCA teams have met with engineers not only from SES, but also from NASA, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, to learn more about the STEM field.

This summer, the teams are helping the YWCA with a robotics class for students who live at Princeton Community Village. They have been invited to work with the local March of Dimes and other community organizations.

A question-and-answer session followed the teams’ presentation, at which the girls displayed their robots and shared binders of weekly journals documenting their progress. Afterward, they were given a tour of SES.

“It really motivates us as a team that there are so many people interested in what we do,” said Dhayagude. “So many companies say they support STEM, but SES and the YWCA do it especially well.”