How these high-schoolers are fighting gender inequality with robots

The Machine Mavericks, a group of 14 Kingston-area students, are gearing up for a robotics competition — and encouraging tech-minded girls to get involved in STEM
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on March 26, 2019

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KINGSTON — “This one here’s a lathe; you can use it to make stuff like screws and other circular objects,” says Grade 10 student Ella Hsu, before turning to another machine in her workshop. “This is one of the coolest ones: the CNC plasma cutter,” she says, pointing to a machine that looks like a cross between a carpenter’s workbench and an air-hockey table. “It uses 3-D computer files to cut aluminum to whatever shape you need.”

Six months ago, Hsu had never even heard of most of the equipment used to build a robot. But on a February afternoon, in what has become her after-school routine, she’s preparing for her first-ever robotics competition.

Hsu is a member of the Machine Mavericks, a robotics team made up of 14 students from four Kingston-area schools. They’re up against other Ontario high-school teams in the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international contest that has become a phenomenon here (173 teams from across the province are taking part in this year’s program). The challenge: in six weeks, design, build, and program a remote-controlled robot capable of transporting balls and discs. The team that moves the most objects to the target wins. Regional tournaments are being held across Ontario throughout March; the provincial championship will take place in April, at the Hershey Centre, in Mississauga. Winning teams qualify for the finals, to be held in Detroit and Houston, later that month.

As the six weeks of preparation draw to a close, the shop on Cataraqui Street in Kingston becomes a second home for the Machine Mavericks. One week before their first tournament, at Humber College, it’s “bagging day”: the Mavericks have to put their robot away until the first day of competition. But that won’t prevent them from practising in the meantime. The team has made three nearly identical robots — named Bamm-Bamm, Wilma, and Fred — to allow more people to take part in the building of the prototype and to give more team members an opportunity to practise driving the robot around the 128-square-metre arena they have constructed in their shop.

The Machine Mavericks, in their rookie season of competition, are notable for more than just their mechanical know-how: the group is committed to encouraging tech-minded girls to get involved in male-dominated STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). “Currently, we’re not quite at gender parity,” says Hsu with a laugh — “because we have more girls than boys.”

Namirah Quadir, a Grade 9 student at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, says that working on a team with 10 other girls has given her the confidence to hone new skills. Quadir used a drill for the first time only four months earlier and says the experience was “a bit frightening” at first. “However, our mentors have made it clear to us that everyone should have equal opportunities to learn new things.”

One of them is parent and co-organizer Niall O’Driscoll, who jumped at the opportunity to share his love of mechanical engineering with his daughter and her teammates. “When I was in elementary school, the boys did woodshop, and the girls did cooking. And there was no discussion — it was just, ‘Boys go here; girls go there,’” he says. “It didn’t seem strange at the time, but it sure seems strange now.”

Sarah Cooper, an engineer and the mother of one of the boys on the team, remembers the way it used to be. “This kind of stuff wasn’t available when I was a kid,” she says. “I would be right in there if that was the case.”

According to Engineers Canada, 19 per cent of newly licensed engineers in Ontario are women, slightly above the national average of 17.9 per cent. The industry group is working to push that number higher. Its “30 by 30” initiative aims to increase the national average to 30 per cent by 2030; Engineers Canada is working with universities and engineering regulators to “facilitate a national vision” for the advancement of women in the industry. But if such an effort is to have lasting results, they say, it will have to start at an early age.

At the shop, the Machine Mavericks have only a few hours left before they need to “bag and tag” their competition robot — they won’t be able to touch it again until six hours before the tournament starts.

As rookies in a deep field of competition, Hsu and Quadir acknowledge that their team’s chances of victory are slim (it compiled a 4-8 record at their first regional competition). But the Machine Mavericks are confident that they’ve built a solid foundation for the future of the team — and of its individual members. Next year, they’ll be more comfortable with machines from the start, meaning they won’t need to spend as much time on the basics. And even if some members decide not to compete next year, their new skills could still help them in the real world.

“It’s not just the robotics experience,” says Quadir. “We’re learning a lot of life skills in the shop as well — very basic repairs. If you don’t know how to drill a screw into a wall, that might be something you learn in robotics.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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