High school girls build kick-ass robots

Watching the evolution of a game-changing robotics team and the young women who built it

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Girls don’t like robots.

Fredi Lajvardi heard that a lot. As a high school science teacher in urban Phoenix, he ran into roadblocks whenever he tried to recruit girls to the school’s robotics club. Male students and even some teachers offered a variety of excuses: they’re not good at building things; they don’t care about engineering; they don’t know how to use power tools.

Lajvardi didn’t believe it, even when female students said they weren’t interested in the robot team. To Lajvardi, it was a puzzle that needed a solution. He was born in Iran but his family moved to the US when he was one year old. As a high school student in Phoenix during the Iran hostage crisis in the early 1980s, he got beat up for being Iranian. It didn’t matter that he’d left Iran as an infant; the bullies just saw his otherness and hurt him for it. In college, Lajvardi decided to become a teacher, in part to help kids like himself — immigrants, nerds, anybody who was told they didn’t belong.

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In 1988, he got a job in a downtrodden high school in West Phoenix. Roughly 70 percent of the student population at Carl Hayden Community High School was below the poverty line. The vast majority were undocumented immigrants from Mexico. Less than 40 percent graduated; only a handful went to college. Most people wouldn’t expect the school to have any kind of robotics program.

To Lajvardi, it was a puzzle that needed a solution

But Lajvardi and Allan Cameron, a jovial computer science teacher, decided that the kids at Carl Hayden weren’t doing well academically because nobody expected them to. They weren’t excelling because they weren’t being given the opportunity to excel. The two teachers decided to do something about that by forming the Falcon Robotics Team in 2001.

At first, they didn’t worry too much about the fact that girls weren’t interested in building robots. It was hard enough convincing anyone to join the team.

The team started meeting after school. Its attendees were a rag-tag group: loners, misfits, kids who would rather be there than go back home. In 2003, the team roster included a former gang member, an ROTC cadet, a brainiac who lived in a shed, and a hulking giant of a kid who said next to nothing. The unlikely foursome started gathering spare parts from local hardware stores and businesses. Before long, they’d cobbled together an impressively robust underwater robot. They entered a major national underwater robotics competition in California and ended up beating MIT to win the national championship. Their victory put Carl Hayden on the map. (That story is chronicled in my book Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream.)

The win energized Lajvardi and Cameron, but they were worried that the team was dominated by boys. Cameron had three daughters; he’d taught them how to use power tools at a young age and encouraged them to build things in the garage. At Carl Hayden, girls began to join the team in the early 2000s but usually ended up writing the papers and doing the verbal presentations. They weren’t actually building robots.

"It’s not part of our culture for girls to build things," notes Diana Guzman, a former member of the team. "We’re expected to take care of our families."

It’s a broader problem nationally. In elementary school, girls outperform boys in science and math, but, by college, only 18 percent of engineering majors are women. As a result, the majority of professional engineers, programmers, and scientists are male. The problem is often thought to crop up in high school, but little is done to fix it. Lajvardi and Cameron wanted to try.

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The 2007 Carl Hayden All-Women Robotics Team in San Diego.

They started in 2007 by forming a girls-only team. The girls that had previously watched from the sidelines were now in charge of everything. It didn’t matter if they weren’t good at soldering or didn’t know how to fix a busted drivetrain. They had to figure it out.

The girls started working with a robot that the boys had initially built. Almost immediately, they solved problems that the boys couldn’t. One example: the robot wouldn’t drive straight. The boys tried to correct for this by over-steering, but it wasn’t a real solution. The girls took the robot apart, identified a problem in the drivetrain, and fixed it. Now when the robot needed to operate autonomously, it could complete its tasks without of veering off course.

They started in 2007 by forming a girls-only team

The girls’ team travelled to San Diego to compete in Dean Kamen’s FIRST robotics competition. The event is akin to a robot death match mashed up with a basketball tournament — robots have to dodge their opponents and score points by winning various games. The girls didn’t make it to the finals, but it was one of the most memorable experiences of their lives. They developed competition strategies without loud-mouthed boys and repaired the robot on the fly without having to defer to the strongly held opinions of the male members of the team. "I might not have stayed in engineering if Fredi and Allan hadn’t supported girls so much," says Angelica Hernandez, a former member of the team who was Arizona State University’s outstanding graduating senior in mechanical engineering in 2011 and received a Masters in Science in atmosphere and energy from Stanford in 2014. "That trip to San Diego was so important."

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Still, their presence at the competition sparked controversy. "Sending an all-girl team to have the experience [of] what ‘its like’ [sic] to be an all-girl team at an event is unrealistic, and in my opinion, not only does nothing for them, but can hurt them by providing this unreal experience that they will never experience in the real world," wrote a blogger in a competition forum.

Girls were now actively involved in all aspects of robot construction and operation

Lajvardi and Cameron fielded another girls team the following year but then realized that they had achieved their goal: girls were now actively involved in all aspects of robot construction and operation. They were comfortable building a chassis or wiring a motherboard. While the team had once struggled to attract girls, it now had a reputation as fun and exciting, maybe even a pathway to college. A new culture had been established at Carl Hayden Community High School.

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I have been reporting on the evolution of the Carl Hayden team for over a decade and have witnessed this change first hand. I first visited the school in January 2005. At that time, there were a few girls on the team, but they primarily prepared posters and documentation. When I visited the school earlier this year, I walked into the robotics room and saw three girls working together to connect wiring on a new robot. They were the electronics leads on the team. Other girls were doing the programming and mechanical build alongside boys.

In recent years, I have spoken with many current and former female team members and have learned that their interests are as diverse as the girls themselves. They’re cheerleaders, star athletes, gearheads. The only thing they have in common, really, is an interest in building awesome robots.

The only thing they have in common, really, is an interest in building awesome robots

"That team gave me the chance to do something I would never have done otherwise," says Diana Guzman, who is now a computer science major at NYU. She and other graduates of the Falcon Robotics team have gone on to pursue careers in electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, and civil engineering. It turns out that girls like robots after all.

Joshua Davis is the author of Spare Parts, a book about the Carl Hayden robotics team. Lionsgate is releasing a film based on his reporting starring Marissa Tomei, Jamie Lee Curtis, and George Lopez.