No, not every young sister has aspirations to be a propped-up doll. At a time when our culture seems wrapped up in the notion of women using sex and seduction to “win,” the Spelman College Spelbots, the first all female African-American robotics team, are using their smarts and making a global impact.
Professor Andrew Williams, the computer scientist who founded the SpelBots, often tries to recruit undecided majors to Spelman College’s computer science and dual degree engineering departments by showing off some cute and versatile robots.”They’ll say, ‘You know, I tried that in high school,’” Williams told Science Nation. But then, from the tentative or negative reactions from some of the young women, his next question is, “Someone told you couldn’t do it, didn’t they? And they’ll say, ‘Yeah.’”
With the help of the National Science Foundation, Williams is bringing engineering and robotics challenges to young women in this still male dominated field. “There’s a big emphasis on collaboration, creativity and the social aspects of engineering and computer science,” Williams says.
Jazmine Miller and Jonecia Keels are co-captains of the SpelBots. The team was created in 2004, and since then, its success has made these robotics wizards a bit like rock stars at the college.
“Around campus, people do know us, they recognize our faces and they say, ‘Oh, you’re the SpelBots captain,’ or, ‘You’re doing the robotics thing. I saw you in Jet magazine,’ or stuff like that. I really see it when I go abroad,” says Miller.
The SpelBots have competed in Asia, Europe and North America with four-legged robotic dogs and two-legged humanoid robots. In the 2009 RoboCup Japan Open competition in Osaka, the team tied with a top technology university from Japan in the championship match of the two-legged Standard Platform League Nao humanoid division.
Next up for the SpelBots? WIth a first-place finish under their belt, they are preparing to compete in the Nao League at RoboCup 2010 in Singapore (June 19-25).
“A big reason why there are not a lot of women in computer science is because of intimidation,” reveals Keels. “My first semester here they gave me so much encouragement, it empowered me so much that now, my confidence is up the roof. I find robots really cool because you can have them help society in a lot of ways. One of our research projects is to have a health care humanoid in which we create a robot to help disabled patients or veterans fetch simple objects, like a glass of water, or medication. So I see robotics going in an exponential direction and only helping society. I definitely want to be a part of that.”
“I really love traveling with Spelbots…I feel like I am literally tearing apart the stereotypes about computer scientists or roboticists,” Miller says.