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FIRST attracting more girls than ever to its annual high school robotics competition

By Staff | Mar 7, 2010

Ask what led Kat Struckman to help establish a nationally recognized program to get more girls involved in the FIRST robotics program and you’ll get a nuanced answer.

“I’m very geeky, but not completely geeky,” she said Friday, while she helped Robotics Team 1073 from Hollis/Brookline High School compete in the FIRST regionals at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.

Struckman and Becky Kabel, a senior at Hollis/Brookline, have long wanted more girls on their FIRST team. Two years ago, they wrote a Chairman’s Award essay detailing a three-year plan to get more girls to join FIRST nationwide, and thus be more likely to go into what are known as STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – careers.

Encouraging student interest in technical careers is the main reason Bedford inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST in 1992. The program has exploded in popularity – there were roughly 1,500 students at the Verizon Wireless Arena, which is hosting one of more than two dozen regionals – but it remains dominated by boys.

Every year, teams are invited to compete for the Regional Chairman’s Award, which honors the team that best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the purpose and goals of FIRST.

Kabel and Struckman came up with the idea of US FIRST Girls, which is a program dedicated to recruiting girls to join the FIRST Robotics program. Their plan included the design of a Web site and program to contact as many FIRST Robotics teams as possible.

In its third year, the Web site has had more than 125 teams join, including a team in Israel.

As a result of this effort, members of SWE, the Society of Women Engineers, are being recruited as mentors for current and future teams.

US FIRST Girls also have “ambassador” teams at most of the nearly 50 regional competitions in the U.S. Each ambassador team is being sent a US First Girls banner and purple bandannas to be handed out to senior girls in recognition of their contributions at each regional competition.

Perhaps more exciting, however, is that the number of girls on the Hollis/Brookline team rose from two three years ago to an all-time high of 16 out of 42 student members this year.

Kabel is excited to see this growth.

“I worked on this because I really truly believe that FIRST can help girls who want to go into STEM fields,” said Kabel, who plans to study business in college, with a possible minor in a technical field.

“Being on a FIRST team, not only do you learn engineering, programming and gear ratios, but through our mentor, I’ve also learned how to write proposals and do presentations. These are skills that I will be using in my field,”

Struckman is a senior at the Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsborough, Mass., who participates on the Hollis/Brookline team because her school doesn’t have a team. She plans to pursue a career in engineering and hopes to take classes at a small engineering school while also taking humanities classes at a local larger school.

The FIRST robotics competition started in Manchester and is now global. Each year, high school teams build robots within strict constraints and compete against each other in a specially designed game.

This year’s game, called Breakaway, involves three-team alliances competing to put soccer balls into goals on a field littered with obstacles; they get extra points if their robots can hang from special bars.

The finals will be held in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on April 16.

The official FIRST site says there are teams from Australia – which is competing in Manchester – Chile, several European countries, Canada, Brazil and Israel.

Locally, teams are fielded by Hollis/Brookline, Bishop Guertin, Merrimack, Nashua and Souhegan high schools, plus a group of Milford-based home-schoolers.

The Hollis/Brookline team is typical in that it gets a lot of support from the school, with teachers and principals dropping by during the three-day competition to check in.

“My principal and P.E. teacher have stopped by; you just never know who you are going to see,” Struckman said.

Both girls agreed that being on the FIRST team is not only a wonderful learning experience, but also great fun.

“I’ve had people tell me that the FIRST team has been the only place in high school where they have felt comfortable,” Kabel said.

Jack Reuter, a junior on the team whose father is a mentor from BAE Systems (“It’s a family thing”), said he’s glad there are more girls on the team.

“I like it,” he said. “They have different skill sets that we don’t have. We are completely lost doing business things.”

His father, Jeff Reuter, said that working on the team was the most fun thing he had ever done. His daughter will be a freshman next year, and he said she’s looking forward to joining the team.

“She’s already recruited four other girls to join,” Jeff Reuter said.

“It’s important for girls to join FIRST, but it’s also important to know that FIRST is not just for girls, as it is not just for boys,” Kabel said. “It’s a team effort. Where would we be without the boys? Nowhere.”

As has been the case for years, BAE Systems is the major sponsor for the Manchester regionals.

Wendy Thomas can be reached at wethomas@gmail.com.

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