Juniors found summer robotics program for women and gender minority students

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Over the course of the summer, many Townsend Harris High School students have been using their newfound leisure time to further explore and define their interests through a plethora of programs, with some students even creating their own. Such was the case with juniors Dabynn Yi and Isabelle Chen, who recently created a program at THHS called Project Roebling, aimed at helping female and other gender minority groups explore the scientific field of robotics.

The program is named after Emily Roebling, a historical figure who was a key example of trailblazing female engineers with her contributed to the design of the Brooklyn Bridge. Dabynn explains that the inspiration for the name came from a field in the FIRST Championship in Texas that THHS’s co-ed robotics team, Steel Hawks, attended in Spring 2022. When Isabelle and Dabynn saw the Roebling field, they “assumed that the field… was named after Emily Roebling,” however, they later “realized it was named after a male engineer, John A. Roebling.” Dabynn said, “We were compelled to name our program after Emily. It was symbolic in a way that we took a name commonly associated with a male engineer and instead used it to highlight a female one.”

Isabelle and Dabynn, both members of the Steel Hawks team, first drew inspiration for the project after hearing accounts from female students who had expressed a desire to see more opportunities for them in the robotics field. After conducting more research, including the discovery of a report from the 2020 US Census, the disparity was made abundantly clear: “The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 27% of women and gender minorities have been continually underrepresented in STEM majors and careers,” Isabelle said. Dabynn added that female underclassmen in the Steel Hawks inspired them to further embark on the project. She said, “To be a newcomer at THHS and be passionate about an academic team [like Steel Hawks] is truly an amazing thing.” Through the program, sophomores were especially able to further develop their passion for robotics, along with others.

The program ran five sessions between Tuesday, July 26 and Monday, August 8, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in Room 415. Social studies teacher Blayne Gelbman, who has experience in FIRST Robotics Competition teams and engineering, also mentored these students. He stated that he was interested in mentoring because he wanted these students to further develop their skills outside of robotics meetings. 

The sessions started with Mr. Gelbman leading an informational discussion, where he asked the team a few interactive questions about the robotics project at hand. Junior Shannon Jackman, a member of the Steel Hawks, described that she liked using questions as an active recall method. She stated, “It assured me of the knowledge I have on the topic by letting me know that my thought process is correct.”

Project Roebling has garnered the participation of many current Steel Hawks members, while also attracting the attention of incoming freshmen who are interested in dabbling into the possibilities of robotics. Although sophomore Jasmine Pillay and junior Tiffany Agbonwaneten were not members of the Steel Hawks during the time of joining Project Roebling, the program has inspired them to join the team this fall. Dabynn said, “By the end of this program, we want them to have a strong foundation in technical skills and problem solving,” as both skills can later be applied to work in the robotics team. Tiffany stated, “As a black THHS student, I’ve felt underrepresented in many aspects, [and] joining robotics was a way for me to try and be that representation for current and incoming students who look just like me.”

On Tuesday, July 26, the first day of the program, the group was able to go through the details of electrical panels, which included information about roboRIO, circuit breakers, basic circuitry, batteries, and many other electrically-based topics. Sophomore Samira Li, a member of the Steel Hawks, found this experience beneficial. She stated that she was able to learn more because she could “personally work with tools, including those both mechanical and electrical.” 

The program used tools and supplies, such as an old robot, owned by Mr. Gelbman from his time teaching at Martin Van Buren High School. The group was able to work with the robot during multiple hands-on activities. Sophomore Ashley Liao said, “Taking apart the robot was the first step of the project. It was to test our skills [learned from Steel Hawks].” As the session progressed, the students were able to learn more about the technical procedures needed to succeed in robotics. Shannon explained that she was able to learn valuable skills, and that she “liked using power tools,” such as a reciprocating saw, throughout the project.

Many of the program’s members enjoyed the small-group setting as they were able to participate in more hands-on experiences, as well as form a more close-knit community of robotics enthusiasts. Jasmyn said, “My favorite part of the project is how supportive everyone is.” She articulated how everyone was willing to lend a helping hand throughout the session and share their love for a field that needed more representation for people like themselves.

The project ended on August 6, leaving many of the members with a stronger passion for robotics. “I am so sad that the program ended so soon, but I look forward to continuing to expand my knowledge in the STEM field later this year in the Steel Hawks team,” Jasmyn said. 

The founders of Project Roebling hope it can occur every summer at THHS. Dabynn said that in the future, “we plan on holding educational seminars to teach female and other gender minority students in our community about the fundamentals of robotics.”

Isabelle added that the project will continue on as “the underrepresentation of women and gender minorities is not limited to students at THHS…all [students] should be given the opportunity to discover their passion for STEM.” In the near future, Project Roebling hopes to create an engineering-themed picture book for elementary school girls, furthering their mission to connect underrepresented groups to the world of STEM.

Photo courtesy of Dabynn Yi