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Robotics enthusiasts Parker and Greta Mayer.

My sister Greta and I are coders on our competitive high school robotics team, and we are on a mission to reshape the future of competitive robotics.

If you’ve never been on a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competitive robotics team, then you are seriously missing out. It is incredibly fun and challenging, and often life-altering for teenagers. Just the presence of a FIRST robotics team can bring a community together in unexpected ways. Running a team requires a collaborative effort between parents, kids, community partners, and mentors, and provides an exciting and educational alternative to sporting events.

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First Tech Challenge Interleague competition.

When you walk into a high school robotics competition, one thing immediately grabs your attention: the girls are few and far between, about 20%-30% of total participants in our FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) league. And those who are there don’t usually work in technical roles like coding or building, but more often in social roles like marketing or scouting. As female coders at these competitions, we are in some very limited company. One can’t help but ask the question… where da ladies at?

As girls, we get it. It’s hard to join a robotics team and catch up to everyone else if you haven’t grown up building and doing other techy things. It’s discouraging if no one expects you to be interested or to understand the more complicated stuff. And if you feel kind of alone and you don’t have any friends who are into it? Forget it. It’s too hard and too lonely to forge ahead.

This gender gap problem extends way beyond the competitive robotics world, which almost seems to be a microcosm of the tech industry itself. According to the American Association of University Women, just 12% of engineers are women, and the number of women in computer science has fallen from 35% in 1990 to just 26% today.

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The Nerdy Girls robot.

But, here’s the thing. We believe that if you can solve the gender gap issue in competitive robotics, you can start to crack open the gender gap issue in the tech industry. We think that if girls could just get a taste of competitive robotics, it would change their future career trajectory.

Why competitive robotics, you ask? Competitive robotics acts as a pipeline into careers in technology as well as scholarship opportunities. In fact, the FIRST Scholarship Program currently has over $50 million available in scholarships for students who participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) programs. FRC is designed for 9th-12th graders and is the highest level of competition. FTC is designed for 6th-12th graders and is the second highest level.

For my sister and me, it was a mega challenge to break into technical roles on our FRC team. After spending our first year on the team watching the guys code and build the robot while we… wait for it… designed t-shirts, we decided to take matters into our own hands. We hit the books (YouTube) hard in the off season and chipped away at the ever-elusive C++, the coding language used to run our team’s robot. Fast forward a year, we caught a lucky break when the guys who were in charge of coding quit the team at the last minute. We jumped in as the team’s coders and we’ve never looked back!

One thing is really clear to us, though. Girls who don’t come in with skills will have a difficult time breaking into technical roles in competitive robotics. And girls will never be motivated to develop those skills unless there is a culture to support it. We don’t buy the idea that girls are “just not interested” in tech and that the gender gap is a reflection of some innate biological difference. We are convinced that girls aren’t going into tech because it’s generally not on their radar, they don’t see other girls going into tech, and there’s no girl culture to support it.

Enter Nerdy Girls.

We created Nerdy Girls to change all of that, and to create a new path for girls into the male-dominated world of robotics. We want to take girls with no tech experience and arm them with the skills they need to take over technical roles in competitive robotics and beyond.

We spent almost two years researching and developing our own program to help girls become master robot trainers. The program is designed to feel like a real-life video game, with six levels of increasingly difficult robotics projects. As a girl works on leveling up, she will also work her way through a series of increasingly complicated robot kits and programming languages, until she is building her own robots with found parts and coding in C++ or Java.

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Teens working on robotics at a Nerdy Girls Meetup session.

We’re creating all of our own YouTube tutorials to guide girls through the projects, so that each girl can work at her own pace on her own robot. The tutorials bring together both the building and coding aspects of the projects which are equally critical components. It’s one thing to build a robot, but it’s an entirely different thing to code a robot to complete a challenge autonomously.

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Nerdy Girls working and learning together.

We are also carving out a new culture for teenage girls in our area, Kittitas County in central Washington. Nerdy Girls hosts weekly meetups which are essentially Friday night robot building parties, complete with a dark, industrial vibe, disco ball, and an awesome playlist. Girls just show up, watch YouTube videos, and work together on robots. It’s mind-blowingly fun.

Perhaps the most exciting development so far is that Nerdy Girls recently formed its first ever all-girl FTC robotics team (part of Level 5 in Nerdy Girls), and on December 16th our rookie team took first place in an eastern Washington regional competition, qualifying the team to advance to the state championship in February.

The team’s foray into competitive robotics began last fall. After the season kickoff and game reveal in September, our 11-member team had eight weeks to design and build a robot using a complicated kit of parts, and then to code it in the Java programming language to complete a series of tasks in both autonomous mode and in driver-operated mode. This was no easy task for our team of robotics newcomers. Being from a rural area, mentors and technical experts were in short supply. Our girls had to dig in, get resourceful, and figure things out for themselves.

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Nerdy Girls with their ribbons and winning robot at FTC Interleague, December 2016.

The team then competed in two “League” events in November and December followed by an “Interleague” regional event on December 16th, the points from which were added together to determine the teams that advance to the state championship. To our surprise, Nerdy Girls took first place at this Interleague event.

Because the Nerdy Girls mission is to arm girls with technical skills, every girl on the team had an active role in building, programming, and driving the robot during competitions. No one stood on the sidelines.

What’s next for Nerdy Girls? We have nine members who have joined our local FRC team (the highest level of FIRST robotics play), and are learning how to build 120-pound robots and how to code them in the C++ programming language. As a result of this infusion of Nerdy Girls members, our local FRC team now has more female members than male, a rare occurrence in FRC.

Ultimately, we want to have Nerdy Girls chapters all over the country, particularly in rural, low-income urban, and other underserved areas. We’re building our model to be scalable, creating infrastructure and building out all of our online tutorials. Our goal is to partner with motivated teen girls around the country to help them start their own chapters. All they would need is funding to buy robot kits and laptops, a community partner to provide space, and a deep passion for robot training.

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Nerdy Girls celebrating their FTC Interleague win!

Prepare yourselves, friends, because the Nerdy Girls underground robot society will soon be infiltrating your neighborhood.

-Parker Mayer, 11th Grade

Co-Founder, Nerdy Girls

Ellensburg, Washington

About Nerdy Girls:

  • Nerdy Girls is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation operating in the state of Washington.
  • At Nerdy Girls, our mission is to raise an army of teen girls, to equip them with the skills needed to build and program the robot of their dreams, to instill in them a fearless and dogged mentality that strikes fear in the heart of the enemy, to connect them to each other through a new underground internet culture, and to unleash them unto all corners of the universe.
  • Learn more at Nerdy Girls.
  • See enclosed Nerdy Girls Engineering Notebook for more information on the Nerdy Girls FTC team.
  • See Nerdy Girls FTC team’s video.
  • Read recent Nerdy Girls blog post on the VEX Robotics’ Girl Powered website
  • Follow Nerdy Girls on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook

Find information about FIRST Robotics in Idaho here.

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Jill Mayer.

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Parker Mayer

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