Rubies help spread robotics across Minneapolis

All-girls team helps mentor fledgling robotics programs across city

Rubies robotics team members (from left to right) Ava Kian, Izzie Mack and Rachel Springer assist members of a new Minneapolis robotics team. Photo courtesy Patrick Henry robotics
Rubies robotics team members (from left to right) Ava Kian, Izzie Mack and Rachel Springer assist members of a new Minneapolis robotics team. Photo courtesy Patrick Henry robotics

People in high school robotics like to talk about the concept of “coopertition,” or teams working to help one another despite being competitors.

Perhaps no team embodies that more than the Rubies of Southwest High School.

The all-girls team mentored five new Minneapolis Public Schools robotics teams this fall as they prepared for competition. They also mentored two Lego league teams and helped at robotics tournaments. A couple team members worked with students at a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) summer camp this summer.

It’s all part of an effort to get more students interested in STEM and to make an impact on their community, team members say.

“We want everyone to have the same access to the programs we’ve had,” said Isabella Kemling, a 10th-grader.

“We want to give back to the same people who helped us,” 10th-grader Ava Kian added.

That desire goes back to the team’s origins. The six team members participated in Lego league together at Lake Harriet Elementary School, where they met a successful all-girls robotics team from Lakeville. That inspired them to start their own robotics team last year.

The team earned a trip to the state tournament last year and won an award for their programming and sensors. Team members said their goal this year was to help expand the number of teams in Minneapolis, a task for which they had a partner at Patrick Henry High School.

Patrick Henry received a $27,000 grant this year from the national robotics association FIRST to start five new teams in the district. The Rubies provided weekly mentoring to the new teams in addition to “Robotics 101” workshops on Saturdays. The new teams were able to successfully build robots and compete with them last month, despite a shortened timeframe.

“It was invaluable to have their expertise,” Patrick Henry robotics advisor David Sylvestre said of the Rubies. “They were able to kind of cut through a lot of the complexity to make it simpler for the students.”

The Rubies said the other students had good attitudes, were motivated to learn and had fun.

“They kept going and kept trying, kept asking questions and kept being eager to learn,” Kemling said.

Rubies robotics team members Isabella Kemling and Ava Kian work on their robot over winter break. Photo by Nate Gotlieb
Rubies robotics team members Isabella Kemling and Ava Kian work on their robot over winter break. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Strengthening Minneapolis robotics

The Rubies are one of 17 teams in the Minneapolis Urban Robotics Alliance, a consortium founded last year. The goal, Sylvestre said, is to increase participation in robotics and public awareness of it as well as to build the strength and competitiveness of urban teams.

“The big idea is to learn from each other and strengthen Minneapolis robotics,” said 12th-grader Jared Voight, the captain of one of three Patrick Henry teams, called Herobotics.

Minneapolis begins STEM programming for students as early as kindergarten with gender-specific afterschool and summer programs known as GEMS and GISE. Those programs are in 46 Minneapolis schools and reach over 2,400 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, GEMS and GISE coordinator Melinda Stapley said.

Students learn robotics in the fall, a season that ends with a Lego league competition. The whole program is project-based, Stapley said, allowing students to practice what they’ve learned through practical tasks.

Sylvestre said applying for the FIRST grant stemmed from a desire to retain students in the GEMS and GISE programs, many of who drop out of robotics before high school. He also saw it as an opportunity to connect with students from diverse backgrounds who may be underrepresented in robotics.

He said that a couple years ago, a team of mostly girls was harassed at a competition because of their hijabs. That’s in direct conflict with the values of FIRST, which promotes diversity and inclusion, he said.

“We felt real strongly (the need) to be able to say, ‘There’s a place in robotics for young women and for everyone,'” Sylvestre said.

Rubies robotics team members (from left to right) Ava Kian, Isabella Kemling, Izzie Mack and Rachel Springer take a photo with members of the Minneapolis Urban Robotics Alliance. Photo courtesy Patrick Henry robotics
Rubies robotics team members (from left to right) Ava Kian, Isabella Kemling, Izzie Mack and Rachel Springer take a photo with members of the Minneapolis Urban Robotics Alliance. Photo courtesy Patrick Henry robotics

‘Our social life’

Girls continue to be a minority in high school robotics, but they are having an impact. Last year, there were nine all-girls teams out of 169 in the Rubies’ division, called FIRST Tech Challenge. Eight of them made the state tournament.

Cheryl Moeller, executive director of the nonprofit High Tech Kids, which runs FIRST Tech Challenge and Lego league programming in Minnesota, said that girls who participate in robotics give it their all, as it’s a bit “outside of the box” for women to identify as “techie.”

“If they step outside of their own comfort zone, they are willing to explore new ideas and work hard,” she said.

The Rubies said they find motivation to succeed from their desire to end the stereotype that all-girls teams are only good at the outreach and documentations aspects of robotics. They said they hope to empower all young people, especially girls to engage in STEM.

“We want to show that with hard work and persistence, a girl’s team can compete, achieve success and earn respect for both technical and management skills,” they wrote in an email.

The Rubies already have qualified for state this year and are hoping to be one of the Minnesota teams to make the national tournament in April. It’s a task for which they meet almost daily in the home of team member Rachel Springer, whose basement they’ve turned into a robotics laboratory.

Springer said participating in the program has been rewarding, noting that she’s learning both technical and soft skills such as teamwork. The team also built its own website, maintains an active social media presence and does outreach, such as STEM advocacy and courting sponsors.

That’s meant plenty of long days for the Rubies, who are also involved in extracurricular activities at school.

“We haven’t pulled any all-nighters yet,” Kian said.

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