Fighting stereotypes ASU Robotics Team shows women can excel in stem fields

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By Laura Latzko,  College Times

During the past few months, the Desert WAVE robotics team garnered attention not only for its strong finish in an international robotics competition, but for its members as well. The country’s second all-female robotics team became an inspiration to girls and women interested in STEM fields.

Recently, the team placed third in the world, only behind the Chinese and Russian teams, in the RoboSub competition for autonomous underwater vehicles.

Hosted by RoboNation and the Office of Naval Research, the contest tests the ability of submarine vehicles by performing a series of tasks. These autonomous underwater vehicles can be used for different types of oceanic research, including coral surveys.

The members of Desert WAVE (Women in Autonomous Vehicle Engineering) were just freshmen when they began building their autonomous underwater vehicle, called “Phoenix,” in the competition.

After starting on equal footing as newcomers, the teammates were able to learn and grow together and they had the chance to ask questions as well as experiment a bit. Paulina Garibay Jaquez, one of the original members, joined because she wanted to learn more about underwater robotics.

“I did know coming into college that I wanted to be in the autonomous-vehicle field. So, when I heard about the opportunity, it was definitely something that I had to take,” Jaquez says. The students come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Jaquez was a member of her high school’s automotive technologies program and was the robotics club president. Bridget Koehl, another original member, took part in National Honor Society and served as vice president of her school’s archery team.

With Desert WAVE, the students were able to learn and apply different aspects of robotics, including computer-aided design, soldering and programming skills. They also cultivated other areas, such as crafting public speaking.

The members of Desert WAVE aim to buck the alarming trends on women face in engineering. Often, women interested in engineering leave or sometimes never enter the field because of male-dominated environments.

Statistics from the Society of Women Engineers show more than 32% of women starting in the STEM fields switch majors – and only about 30% of women who have bachelor’s degrees in engineering still work in the field 20 years later. Jaquez says that within the ASU team women are able to take on critical roles and have a voice.

“It is a comfortable environment in which we all know what we are going to do. We all know that we have to do it together,” Jaquez says.

Desert WAVE was developed through a partnership with The Polytechnic School at ASU and the Si Se Puede Foundation. Wanting to promote positive change, Daniel Frank—a lecturer for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering—and Faridodin “Fredi” Lajvardi—vice president of STEM initiatives for
Si Se Puede—started the team in August 2018. Both come from strong backgrounds working with robotics teams.

As a student at the University of Florida, Frank competed on multiple world-champion robotic-boat teams. He also taught high school robotics teams for the last seven years. For 30 years, Lajvardi was a high school robotics team coach. He worked with the Falcons Robotics Team at Carl Hayden Community High School, which gained national recognition when it beat a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team.

Lajvardi says with the ASU team, he and Frank wanted to foster an atmosphere where students wouldn’t feel silenced.

“We are trying to create this environment that is completely safe for the students to open up and take the risks that they might not take in a co-ed situation because of all of the subliminal effects of being in a coed group,” Lajvardi says. Frank says his and Lajvardi’s roles changed last year as students became more knowledgeable.

“As they started to pick up more confidence and they started to become more familiar with the technology, he and I have backed off a lot more to give them more ownership of the team,” Frank says. This year, the veteran members of the team undertook leadership roles from the start by planning meetings, structuring the group and generating robot designs.

The team advanced in competition faster than anyone expected. Its members were aiming for the top 50% and planned to build from there. Being at the top of the pack was a three- to four-year goal. Koehl says from the beginning students took the initiative and expanded on their skills in their own spare time, she also notes Desert WAVE got other teams to see them as competition and not just an all- female team.

“We just wanted to, at the very least, not perpetuate any stereotypes. I think we were all shocked when we ended up being third,” Koehl says.

“We went from being the new team and everyone being like, ‘You built that robot your first year,’ to everyone being like, ‘Hey, how are you doing that? How are you beating us?’ It was cool to see everyone so excited for us when we were doing our final run and doing really well.”

The team entered the final round in fifth place and was able to advance. Lajvardi says the use of a fiber-optic gyroscope and surveying techniques helped the teams success.

WAVE robotics team is setting ambitious goals for next years competition after placing third in this years RoboNation autonomous underwater vehicle competition. PHOTO DESERT WAVE ROBOTICS

The teams impact was more substantial than just the competition. The students became role models to all ages, especially girls in elementary, middle and high schools.

This school year, the group started working with the Chandler-based Degrees of Freedom all-female high school team.

“I think it is important to have female roles models who are like, ‘This is a good choice, and this is something you can do even if you don’t feel like you are the typical person who would become an engineer,’” Koehl says.

Desert WAVE grew and attracts new students from human systems, software, electrical and mechanical engineering as well as computer science.

The group is able to specialize, with students focusing on such areas like electrical or mechanical facets of robotic vehicles.

After starting with eight students last year, the team recruited a dozen for the competition. It now has 25 to 30 students.

As it expands, the group sets more rigourous goals, such as building two submarines that communicate, for next year’s competition.

Freshman Laura Roty already worked on 3-D printing and radio- controlled car projects with her dad, a software development manager. Roty, a human systems engineering major, is taking engineering classes for the first time. In high school, she never felt engineering classes were open to her, she often felt like an outsider in computer science classes.

“It was more male-dominated in high school, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. I’m going to take control and not let that hold me down. If it’s something that I want to do, then I’m going to do it,” Roty says. Cecilia Alcantar, a freshman pursuing mechanical engineering, joined the group at the beginning of the school year. She comes from a background as a chapter officer of the Future Farmers of America, and says learning skills such reading electrical diagrams appealed to her because she could apply them in other arenas of her life.

“With this, I can learn the real- world skills that I’m going to be using in my classes and afterwards,” Alcantar says. Joining Desert WAVE at the beginning of the school year has allowed her to get involved in something bigger.

“Desert WAVE really stood out to me, being an all-female engineering team. Just seeing what they had accomplished, I wanted to be a part of something like that, Alcantar says.

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