That does compute: More girls gaining tech, business skills through competitive robotics

Dubbed a “varsity sport for the mind,” FIRST Robotics is about much more than building robots to shoot Frisbees, and it’s attracting more girls interested in everything from marketing to engineering.
When a couple of high school students make a pitch to the head of design at an S&P 500 company and get a generous sponsorship commitment on the spot, your first thought probably isn’t, “Ah, they must be on a competitive robotics team!”

But that’s exactly where Lizzie Culp and Kelsey Bruinwood honed their business skills. Both are members of Stryke Force, one of five local teams in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) program. Dubbed a “varsity sport for the mind,” FRC is about much more than building cool robots to toss balls or shoot Frisbees, and it’s attracting more and more girls interested in everything from marketing to computer engineering.

With professional mentor volunteers guiding them, FRC teams raise funds, design a team brand and build and program a robot to perform tasks in competition, with a new challenge each year. Nationally, FRC has grown from 28 teams in 1992 to an expected 3,000 teams for the 2014-15 competition, involving 75,000 high school students. It’s one of several programs offered by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a non-profit that aims to motivate young people to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Stryke Force, formed in 2009 and named in honor of its first official sponsor (Stryker), draws students from several districts across the Kalamazoo area, as well as homeschools. They meet in a large space in the Midlink Business Park, complete with tool benches, work tables, laptops, a meeting area and robot practice fields.

In October, Lizzie, a senior at Mattawan High School, and Kelsey, a homeschooled junior, convinced Newell Rubbermaid Design Center to become a Stryke Force sponsor, joining a roster that includes Midlink, Tekna, Kalamazoo Waterjet and Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business, among others. The girls, both members of Stryke Force’s all-female Business Team, met directly with Chuck Jones, Newell Rubbermaid’s chief design and research and development officer. Mentor Jerry Culp (Lizzie’s father and Stryker’s vice president of global development) noted that Jones was impressed with the girls’ professionalism. “We hear that a lot, but we work pretty hard with (the students),” Culp says. “Kelsey did the presenting, and she was spectacular.”

Kelsey (whose mother, Kim Bruinwood, is the Stryke Force coach) attributes her success to lots of practice, plus her mentors’ help. “A couple years ago, if you had said, ‘Hey Kelsey why don’t you go do this presentation?’ I would’ve been like, ‘No way! I’m not a public speaker,’” she says. “But I’ve had lots of encouragement and lots of great mentorship.”

FIRST Robotics teams are run like small businesses, says mentor Deanna Rothe, controller for real estate developer Treystar and mother of Stryke Force participants Katherine and Abby Rothe. “We have the business/marketing side, the finance side, the sponsorship side and then the build side, where they actually build the robots and compete. Everybody works together. So kids get training in all those areas, not just engineering.” In addition to securing sponsorships and marketing/branding the team, the business group also scouts other teams for alliances at competitions and interacts with judges.

“To get the awards for certain things, you can’t just say, ‘Here’s a robot!’” Kelsey explains. “You have to sell the robot; you have sell your team. As we’ve been told time and time again by our mentors, ‘You can build a great product, but if you can’t sell it or market it then you don’t have a business.’”

Kelsey, not surprisingly, thinks she’ll probably pursue a career in business. Along with Lizzie, Kelsey and Abby Rothe, the Stryke Force business team this year includes Chloe Mendez (senior, Gull Lake and Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center), Emma Scheller (sophomore, Gull Lake/KAMSC), Lily Kitagawa (sophomore, Portage Central/KAMSC) and Kelsey’s sister Cassidy Bruinwood (junior, homeschool).

Katherine Rothe has taken a more technical path since her Stryke Force days: She studies computer engineering at Purdue University’s College of Engineering. A 2014 graduate of Portage Northern and KAMSC, Katherine was on the team for three years. “Joining Stryke Force showed me what programming can accomplish,” she says. “Being on a robotics team gave me more insight into the direct logic and workings of a computer and other electrical components.” It’s also been a boost to her studies at Purdue, helping her better understand the design process and the real-world applications of what she’s learning.

In return, Katherine shares time and talent with the team that enriched her. Last year she mentored Stryke Force’s FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) team (similar to FIRST Robotics, but made up of middle school students) and even gave up her spring break to attend regionals with them. She’s also the programming architect for the high school team. “The mentors on the team taught me so much and … also helped me learn more about myself and where I want to be in the future,” she says. “I want to give other students a chance at the same wonderful experiences I had.”

Katherine’s sister Abby, a sophomore at Portage Northern, is in her first year with Stryke Force. Attending her big sister’s robotics competitions “got me hooked,” she says. “Once you get in there and you’re with the team, it’s really fun, with all the cheering and everything. You get really involved in the game once you start watching.”

Abby also saw how Stryke Force boosted her sister’s college path. Katherine got a good scholarship to Purdue, Deanna Rothe says, and “I think (being on the team) helped her college resume. A lot of college recruiters know the FIRST Robotics name … You stand out.”

When she first joined the team, Katherine stood out for something else. “My first year, I was the only girl on the build team,” she recalls. “But everyone on the team was so amazingly accepting. … I realized that if I thought of myself as the only girl, I would set myself apart, and once I just thought of myself as one of the team members, all of that went away.”

Chloe Mendez, a third-year team member, also knows the feeling of being “the only girl” in a STEM situation: “When I went to Tech Day at [University of] Michigan, somehow I ended up in a group that was 24 boys and then me,” she notes. Still, she says she sees more female peers getting involved in STEM programs, and she plans to major in either electrical engineering or computer science herself.

This year, 11 out of 29 high school members on the total Stryke Force FRC team are girls. “More and more females are getting involved in this,” and more girls feel it’s “OK” to do it, Jerry Culp says. “We’re trying to make sure there’s an environment here where, if you want to learn, we’ve got the opportunity to go do something with it.”

Mentor Doug Staunton is a chief engineer of advanced technology development at Stryker. “We don’t care what sex people are. We just want engineers,” he says, noting the labor shortage in that field. Staunton’s daughter Sierra, an eighth-grader at Portage West Middle School, could help change that. This is her second year with the FTC team. “It’s a lot of fun,” she says. “The science in it is kind of cool, learning how to do CAD and learning how to program. It’s a lot of logic and I really like that.” And, yes, she wants to be an engineer like her dad. “This program gives them experiences early on in confidence,” Doug Staunton says. “So that when they do go to college and they learn about gears and how to run the formulas, they’ve used them before, they understand it. So somebody like Sierra is going to benefit tremendously from this.”

That’s why Stryke Force organizers are always trying to get the word out about FIRST Robotics at community events, especially STEM events for girls. And if a girl is interested in FRC but maybe worried about the “coolness” factor, Katherine Rothe has advice: Go for it. “Other students on the team will share your passion, and you won't be ‘uncool’ because everyone there will understand,” she says.  “I know so many people who have told me that it’s awesome to see a girl in robotics. … If you're enthusiastic about it, people can't judge you for doing what you love.”

Just ask Maddie Dwyer, a Portage West sixth-grader in her first year of FTC who plans to be a physicist. She says she’d convince an on-the-fence friend to join by telling her, “You can build robots. There’s nothing more awesome than that!”

And who knows? You might also launch a career along with those Frisbees.

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Deanna Rothe urges students interested in Stryke Force to attend upcoming events. The FTC team has competitions in November and December, while the FRC team’s next event will be in March 2015. Find out more at StrykeForce.org.

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Cathie Schau is a freelance writer and owner of the communications firm GoodPoint. She lives with her family in Portage and steals away to Saugatuck whenever she can.

Photos by
Susan Andress.



Young women on the Stryke Force FIRST Team

Cassidy Bruinwood, 11th grade, Homeschool
Kelsey Bruinwood, 11th grade, homeschool
Nika Buss 10th grade, Portage Central
Elizabeth Culp. 12th grade, Mattawan
McKenzie Elliott
Lily Kitagawa, 10th grade, Portage Central and KAMSC
Chloe Mendez, 12th grade, Gull Lake
Abigail Rothe, 10th grade, Portage Northern
Emma Scheller, 10th grade, Gull Lake and KAMSC
Katie Sydlik-Baderow, 12th grade, Kalamazoo Central

Sierra Staunton, 8th grade, Portage West Middle
Kjerstin Lindbloom, 6th grade, Mattawan
Maddie Dwyer, 6th grade, Portage West Middle

Mentors of the Stryke Force FIRST Team

Deanna Rothe – Controller – Treystar
Mark Wasserman – Staff Designer – Stryker IMT
Doug Staunton – Chief Engineer – Stryker IMT
Jerry Culp – Vice President Global Development – Stryker IMT
Kay Palan - Dean of the College of Business at Western Michigan University – Western Michigan University
Molly Lacy – Practice Administrator – OB-GYN, PC
Don Malackowski – Vice President of Research and Development – Stryker
Pete Thannhauser – Laboratory Supervisor for Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering – Western Michigan University
Dan Proczko – Marketer – Newmind Group
Pam Elliott – CAD designer – Stryker
Tammy Wasserman – Sr. Benefits Analyst – Stryker
Cory Walters – Park Coordinator – City of Kalamazoo
Cory Welch – Sr Staff Engineer – Stryker
Herb Brinn – Consultant – Brinn Transmissions
Greg Rabick – Principal Engineer – Stryker
Jim Flatt – Sr. Staff Engineer – Stryker IMT
John Bruinwood – Data Center Operations – Ascension Health/Borgess Hospital
Dennis Lacy – Experimental Specialist – Stryker
Kim Bruinwood – Homeschool Mom
Jeremy Mommerency – Sr. Staff Design Engineer – Stryker
Lori Malackowski – Homeschool Mom
Scott Horton – Sr. Design Engineer - Tekna

 
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