Robots battle for dominance, highlight girls in STEM in Iowa City

Iowa City school officials including technology classes to curriculum

Published: February 4 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:07 am in

The boys vastly outnumber the girls in Iowa City West High School’s Principles of Engineering classes. But that didn’t stop freshman Ariel Halvorsen and Kenna Short from signing up. In fact, it inspired them to show what they can do.

“A lot of the time the guys don’t value the opinions of the girls,” Short said.

Halvorsen nodded.

“We just wanted to prove them wrong,” she said.

The girls were participating in a robotics competition Monday. A crowd of students surrounded an impromptu arena set up in the West High Commons, as teams of “Clawbots” raced to pick up more marbles and plastic bottles than their opponents.

It was a more challenging task than it may sound. Over 100 students in grades 9-12 are enrolled in the class. They designed, programmed and built 25 robots, working to give each machine an edge.

A single loose bolt or programming error could throw the robots off. Different teams created different adaptations, from scooping cups to a whirring mechanism that swept up marbles at a rapid rate. The winning three-robot team thought outside the box and dedicated one of its robots to defense, with outstretched metal arms that blocked enemy Clawbots from reaching their goals.

The class is part of Project Lead the Way, a national initiative to get kids interested in STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Getting more girls involved is part of the goal. Audia said when the class first launched in 2007, zero girls signed up. This year, 25 percent of the students are girls.

There’s still a long way to go to recruit girls to STEM classes, but Audia said he is pleased with the progress so far. Efforts have included seminars with Kirkwood Community College and the University of Iowa aimed at girls and a “Road Less Traveled” career conference for girls at Iowa State University.

Iowa City schools also recently started requiring a 12-week Gateway to Technology class for every eighth grader.

“Every girl is at least exposed to robotics and engineering and design,” Audia said.

For Halverson, Short and senior Sydney Beaurivage, exposure was the first step. All three said only a few years ago they would never have contemplated pursuing engineering.

Today, Beaurivage is the captain of the Iowa City Robotics team. She said she enjoys seeing her designs come to life.

“This class is really one of the only classes I actually look forward to each day,” she said. “It really confirms I want to do engineering in college.”

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