Carnegie Mellon University: CMU’s Girls of Steel Team Qualifies for World Championship

The Girls of Steel robotics team took home top awards at two recent regional competitions and qualified to compete with the best national and international teams this April at the FIRST World Championship competition in Houston.

The team received the Regional Chairman’s Award at the Buckeye Regional Competition and the Regional Engineering Inspiration Award at the Greater Pittsburgh Regional Competition, both held this month. The Girls of Steel is the only team from Pennsylvania to qualify at these events for the World Championship, scheduled for April 20–23.

“I’m elated that we made it to the world competition,” said Elizabeth Crookston, the team captain and a senior at Fox Chapel Area High School. “It’s especially gratifying given that we haven’t been able to build a robot in person for more than a year because of COVID.”

As part of the competitions, robotics teams of high school students design, build and program a robot. That robot then competes against other team’s robots to complete specific tasks such as shooting a ball through a series of funnel-like hoops or hanging from scaffolding. In this year’s competition, the robot gained points by climbing higher and being able to hang suspended on the scaffolding, and successfully making baskets. The Girls of Steel robot, which the team named Lightning McQueen, lit up with a series of colored lights after each successful shot.

Sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University, Girls of Steel draws students from around 20 schools in the region. To join the team, students apply and then commit to attending meetings and build sessions at CMU for up to four days a week. The girls learn design skills, programming languages and machining capabilities. The Girls of Steel Robotics program offers opportunities for all age levels, serving more than 100 youth on 15 FIRST teams. The team’s mascot is Rosie the Riveter, and her “we can do it” spirit is evident.

At the Greater Pittsburgh Regional (GPR) Competition, held March 16–19 at California University of Pennsylvania, the Girls of Steel competed with 46 other teams from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kentucky, Florida, New York and Ohio. The team won the Regional Engineering Inspiration award at GPR for its outstanding success in “advancing respect and appreciation for engineering within its school or organization and community.”

CMU’s Robotics Institute (RI) had a strong presence at GPR. Matthew Johnson-Roberson, director of the RI, spoke at the competition, and Zeynep Temel, an assistant professor in RI, demonstrated the robotics research happening in her Zoom Lab.

At the Buckeye Regional Competition, held March 24–26 at Cleveland State University, the team competed with 58 other teams from Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. The team received the Regional Chairman’s Award which earned the team a second qualification for the World Championship. The Chairman’s Award is the most prestigious at FIRST, and honors the team that best represents a model for other teams to emulate and best embodies the mission of FIRST.

“My favorite part of the competitions was getting to see our robot compete and do what we intended it to do. We worked really hard and I was happy to see all our hard work pay off,” said Ciara Anderson, Pit Co-lead and junior at Avonworth High School.

The girls continued to improve their robot between the two competitions. The team buckled down with long, intense prototyping and build sessions to adapt the robot to shoot higher. The mechanical and design team, programmers and drivers had to work together to make the last-minute modification work.

“Iteration and continual improvement is a big part of success, so we investigated several ways to improve our on-field performance,” said George Kantor, an RI professor and the Girls of Steel’s lead mentor. “The resulting transformation was amazing. The robot went from scoring 15ish points per match to more than 20. It was an effort to be proud of, and a lot of fun to watch.”

FIRST is widely considered the world’s leading youth-serving nonprofit advancing STEM education. Over 679,000 kids from 110 countries participated in the 2019-2020 season. The competition did not take place last year due to COVID-19, and organizers are excited to compete in person this year.

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