Women in Science

Spelman's Winning Robotics Team De-Programs Bias

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.

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This humanoid robot, Charles, must be programmed to "see" the ball, kick it and defend its own goal. ATLANTA (WOMENSENEWS)--College junior Jazmine Miller showed off a soccer-playing robot to prospective members of the Spelman Robotics, or SpelBots, team.

"His name is Charles, he's very difficult. That's why it's a he," she laughed. "We kind of see him as human; we talk to him, we yell at him."

As Charles got its bearings, it spoke to the crowd in the computer lab. "I don't see the ball yet I'm sorry. [Pause] Oh, I see the ball." The crowd cheered as the 4-foot-tall robot kicked the ball.

Creations such as Charles must be programmed to find and kick the ball and prevent an opposing team of robots from scoring in the annual RoboCup World Championship soccer competition. Since 1997 the matches have been held in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Once a competition begins, the robots are on their own. The team's programming skills have to account for every soccer player scenario, from kicking and blocking to getting up after falling down.

Spelman, the historically black women's college here, has been sending robots to the competition since 2005, often beating graduate students from prestigious tech universities from Germany to Japan. They had their best finish last year in Osaka, Japan, when the team tied for first place with Fukuoka Institute of Technology in Japan in the humanoid robot category.

Along the way they've attracted enough interest--whether in a local campus cafeteria or an airport in Amsterdam, the Netherlands--to make Miller accustomed to attention.

"Around campus people do recognize our faces; they say, 'Oh, you're on the SpelBots, you're doing the robotics thing. I saw you in Jet magazine.' I really see it when I go abroad," said Miller, a computer science and engineering major.

Early Romance with Robotics

Miller's romance with robotics started early. A self-described "world-traveling military kid," she was on the robotics team at her high school in the Netherlands.

Jonecia Keels, from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is Miller's co-captain. She was a little less sure of a computer career.

"For a long time I didn't think I was smart enough to get into computer science. I only saw males in the industry and I just didn't think I had what it took to be a computer programmer," said Keels.

Two things helped change her mind. First, the confidence she gained at this women's college.

"I know a big reason why there's not a lot of women in computer science is because of intimidation. At an all-women's school, they already know your capabilities. So it is easier to take leadership roles and go that step further without added stress," said Keels.

Keels adds that false perceptions--of being stuck in a basement lab, all by yourself--also hurt young women's interest in the field. "That's not what it is at all! It's a very social environment, because there's a lot of teamwork involved," she said.

Andrew Williams, the professor who is head of the computer science department and SpelBots' founder and coach, is Keels' second reason for gained confidence.

"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.

Lack of Role Models

"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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For more information:

The SpelBots at Spelman College:
http://www.spelbots.org/

RoboCup:
http://www.robocup.org/

Spelman College
http://www.spelman.edu/

 
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