By Marsha Walton
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
The SpelBots aren't a band, they're a robotics team from Spelman College in Atlanta. They are breaking down stereotypes about computer programmers, engineers and African American women wherever they go.
"After my first semester at Spelman I definitely was solid in computer science and I knew that's what I wanted to do, in part because of him," she said.
Before joining the Spelman faculty in 2004, Williams worked in the computer industry, at GE Medical Systems, in Waukesha, Wis., and was a professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
"Looking back at my life, there were a lack of role models for me, being African American and Korean," Williams said.
So he sought out a teaching position at a historically-black college or university. Creating the team was a way to bring a new and creative challenge to his students.
"There's a big emphasis on creativity, collaboration, the social aspects of engineering and computer science. It would do great wonders for our country on a global scale if we maximize that pool of women, and underrepresented students like African Americans, in computer science," Williams said.
At some RoboCup competitions, both Keels and Miller sensed discrimination. For example, at the Osaka games, "There were a lot of stares at the competition, nasty attitudes toward us," Keels said.
However, Keels added that it was a good learning experience. "We weren't an easy win like I think they thought we would be, being an all female, all African-American team, being from an undergrad institution as well. And we tied for first place!"
"The teams we were competing with were all male, all white," said Miller. "And the first thought that came to me was, we are going to blow their minds!" she laughed.
Williams, the coach, tries to find "teaching moments" in the negative situations the team occasionally faces.
"There's still global racism, there's global sexism. And what they do in computer science and engineering here at Spelman can have a global impact. We showed them women doing computer science. They probably had never seen African American women doing that," said Williams.
Miller enjoys helping to break down barriers. "I really love traveling with SpelBots because I feel like I am literally tearing apart the stereotypes about computer scientists and roboticists," she said.
Marsha Walton covers science, technology, environment and space issues. She was a producer for CNN's science and tech unit for more than 10 years. Her work has also appeared on Mother Nature Network, Appalachian Voices, and the National Science Foundation.
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