Bridging societal, digital and gender divides through robotics in Germantown [Video]

Margaret Mary Rilling seems to know a lot more about underserved communities than your typical Catholic prep-school senior.

Four years on the all-girls championship robotics team from Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown have taught her that women are underrepresented in the fields of science, engineering and mathematics.

“When we’re at competitions, girls come up to us and are amazed at what we’re doing. On their teams, the girls make the posters,” the Firebirds current president said Friday morning. “And, the guys come up to ask us ‘Who built your robot?'”

The answer, of course, is that they did. Yes, as shocking the ignorant competition as it may be, girls did.

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In fact, they’ve done it so well that regional honors enabled them to travel to St. Louis for the “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” or FIRST, program’s national competition in April.

Paying it forward

When Rilling was asked her impressions of the Firebirds’ visit Friday to the Wissahickon Boys and Girls Club in Germantown, the response also related to uneven playing fields.

“We had a great opportunity through this program, despite being underrepresented as girls, and the kids here, they’re from economically underrepresented areas,” she said.

“That’s why it’s so exciting to be here today,” she continued inside the Coulter Street facility. “They would not have gotten the opportunity to see all this unless we were able to come here.”

An appreciated visit

The scene in the Boys and Girls Club’s gym on Friday was unlike a normal day.

Posted on the stage was a sign that read “Welcome to Robotics.” On another wall was a poster welcoming U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.

Scooting across the basketball court were two robots built by the Firebirds (and repaired on a few occasions during the visit). One had the capacity to handle basketballs; the other was designed to play a rudimentary brand of soccer. (They know not what they’ll be challenged to produce for this upcoming year’s competition).

Several dozen kids in light blue shirts took turns controlling the robots with either a laptop or fancy joystick. Judging by the contraptions crashing into tables and walls, the bumpers surrounding their frames were an ingenious touch.

There were also displays to teach scientific and engineering basics to a group of children not normally exposed to such things.

“One word describes how I feel about this: Awesome,” said Jack Law, the center’s senior vice president for the past 16 years. “It’s just awesome to see these kids, from the neighborhoods they’re from, being exposed to something that they would not otherwise have seen.”

Law noted that events like this help dent the “digital divide,” namely that being able to learn about robotics and the like, thanks to the Firebirds’ generosity, helps Boys and Girls Club youths from Northwest Philadelphia “go from being the have-nots to the haves.”

“They’re experiencing something that will last a lifetime. We do technology programs here, but at this level, it’s really eye opening. They’re seeing that the sky really is the limit,” Law said. “It’s awesome, awesome, awesome.”

Global implications

Fattah said Friday’s event, which involves a program he champions, was designed to spread educational opportunities further.

“There is a dearth of young people pursuing [studies and careers] in engineering, math and science, and if our country is going to retain a position of global leadership, that needs to change,” he said. “When I talk to manufacturers, their No. 1 issue isn’t EPA or OSHA regulations; it’s finding quality people to hire.”

Having just returned from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where he watched NASA’s Mars rover landing, Fattah said the timing of the event was perfect.

“We have to create interest at this level, to get the end product at the next level,” he continued, motioning to the preteens tinkering with their robot visitors. “All over the country, FIRST teams are mentoring Boys and Girls Clubs. We’re hoping to create the next generation of engineers and scientists.”

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