By: Shannon Mann
It’s a woman problem.
They all say it. Big business, media, government…there’s really no denying it.
The fact is that the number of women in a vast array of STEM fields is small, and that needs to change.
But as the North Carolina Department of Instruction kicks off its newest campaign to attract more women into the STEM field of computer science, something more grassroots is taking place in Johnston County.
Earlier this year, Clayton, N.C. became home to the newest FIRST Lego League robotics team. This rookie team of middle-school students is only the sixth FLL competition team registered from one of the state’s heaviest populated counties, and the first all-girl team to represent the area.
FIRST is a STEM-focused, robotics program that was founded in 1989 and started with 20 teams across the United States. The program promotes school-aged students working together to research real world problems, develop innovative solutions and present those solutions to panels of judges and community leaders, all while building and coding robots for regional, national and international competitions. Today, there are 600,000 students involved in FIRST programs across 112 countries. Teams can be organized within traditional schools, home schools and communities.
Leigh Dement, a Clayton native and co-coach of the Techno Tigresses, said that the team formed because several girls wanted a larger role in the design, build and coding of the robot, but on most teams these tasks are taken over by boys, and that turned the girls off.
Sydney Matisoff, a 7th grader at Neuse Charter School, home to the first FLL teams in the county, is a veteran of the robotics program; however Matisoff took a two-year break until she was asked to be a founding member of the Techno Tigresses in late February.
“I didn’t have as much fun my first year because the boys treated me like I was a baby,” Matisoff said. “There was only one other girl on the team and she was leaving, and the boys basically dominated everything.”
Matisoff’s plight of being in the minority was not uncommon.
Kaitlyn Nolte, another 7th grader on the team, was the only middle-school girl at Southside Christian School taking a robotics elective course.
“I wanted to take the class because I’ve been to a couple camps and have always been interested in robots,” Nolte said. “I always thought it was fun to make your own machine and it do what you program it to do. I wish more girls would have been in the class.”
What enticed these two young women, and their parents, to join the new team was not only the chance to have ownership of the robot, but something altogether different.
As an all-girl team the female coaches put a heavy emphasis on meeting and talking with prominent women in STEM professions across the state.
Dement knew first-hand what an opportunity this would be for these young girls. The sophomore chemistry major at N.C. State University was captain of Smithfield-Selma High School’s robotics team her senior year. Female mentors in the STEM aspects of the competition were rare.
“These girls get to meet so many fascinating women who work in careers where they are under-represented,” Dement said. “The support they’ve received not only locally, but across the state and nation has been incredible. Companies know they have to attract more women into STEM fields, and in order to do that you have to start young.”
Thus far the girls have toured Campbell University’s School of Engineering; met with the owner of NaturalMath.com who taught them to relate math and art; participated in an archaeological dig with the only female-owned engineering firm in Johnston County; toured the Caterpillar plant and test track facilities and learned how robotics plays a major role in their operations, and spent time at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base learning about leadership, core values and STEM plays a major role in U.S. military operations.
Master Sgt. David Ewbank, non-commissioned officer in charge of the 916th Air Refueling Wing Explosive Ordinance Device flight, arranged for the girls to operate several bomb detection robots through a series of obstacle courses designed for them by the active duty Airmen of the 4th Fighter Wing EOD.
“I was impressed with the level of interest they displayed in the robotic controlled devices. This type of experience is important for the benefit of motivating girls to seek out higher learning and advanced skills as a profession,” said Ewbank. “I can only believe this will help guide them in certain life choices needed to make eventual employment with robotics a reality.”
Capt. Meghan Booze, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, inspired the team as well. Booze told the girls of the challenges she faced to become a combat aircraft pilot even though the career field was opened to women in 1993.
“Women make up about .8% of the fighter pilot population. There are only about 65 of us,” said Booze, who is also earning her master’s degree from Duke University in mechanical engineering. She told the group that even though there might not be many women mentors in their field of interest that they should never give up and always believe in themselves.
Female role models have not only helped educate the team, but they’ve helped sponsor it too.
Expenses for a competitive rookie team can add up. The EV3 Mindstorm robot used by most teams can cost just under $1,000 with additional parts, sensors, motors and storage. In addition the team is responsible for registration and competition fees, travel, marketing materials and training. The Techno Tigresses have received a good portion of their funding from female-owned and led businesses with additional support from individuals, educational institutions and organizations and firms with direct ties to STEM.
Dr. Shaddha Patel, owner of Clayton Kids Dentistry, is one such sponsor. Patel said she’s excited to see an increase in participation of women in medical and dental fields, but she realizes the broad gaps that exist in other areas.
“It seems a combination of gender bias, stereotypes, and an antiquated academic environment has limited the progress of female participation in STEM,” said Patel. “Through sponsoring activities such as this team I hope to foster curiosity and a sense of achievement for women in fields that have been historically less welcoming to them.”
While a majority of the team’s sponsors come from Johnston County with several others throughout North Carolina, they do have a few from outside the state that have leant their support.
Athena Staton is the owner of SheCar.com, an online, whole-sale car buying company based out of Florida. An entrepreneurial spirit aided by technology led Staton to delve into this male-dominated field in order to help women trust their car buying experience. Staton heard about the Techno Tigresses in March and was quick to throw her support behind them.
“I felt an immediate connection to these girls and their story, especially since they were rookies,” Staton said. “SheCar is a bit of rookie in that we are trying to change perceptions about car buying…much like this little team is trying to change the perception of girls in technology. I love getting their updates and following their activities. I think it’s important for them to know that women everywhere are supporting them.”
With their competition season starting August 1, the team is off to a strong start researching their project topic and building their robot strategy.
“Our team is awesome because it is all girls and we have a lot of fun,” said Matisoff. “We’re good at teamwork and we communicate with each other. It isn’t like one of us is taking over. We work well together.”
The team knows they have many people cheering them on and hoping for their success, not only during the competition, but more importantly outside of the competition and into the future.
“This is a very good experience and opportunity because I get to learn more, not just about robotics but about STEM,” said Nolte. “I’m definitely working with robots one day.”
To learn more about the team you can follow them on Facebook at: Techno Tigresses #44406