Mr Roboto

Harlan Sudduth, Charli Perry and Silas Stricklend guide their robot during the White Plains STEM robotics workshop Thursday at White Plains Elementary School. 

WHITE PLAINS There was a time when 8-year-old Emma Tidwell believed that her elementary school’s robotics team was just for boys.

The color blue seemed to be associated with the team and its homeroom in the school, after all, Tidwell saw.

So: “Only boys,” she thought.

Tidwell applied anyway, and is now one of six other girls on the team of 13 at White Plains Elementary. At White Plains Middle School, meanwhile, a majority of the 12-member team is female.

Girl power — that was the theme Thursday at Tidwell’s elementary school, where her coaches, teachers Wendy Turner and Jana Hadley, invited both teams to learn from female students on White Plains High School’s robotics team.

The “Girl Powered” event was one of about a hundred held across the country this week as part of an initiative by VEX Robotics and the Robotics Education & Competition, or REC, Foundation.

“It’s not necessarily about ‘Girls are better than boys,’” said Leslie Cruse, a regional support manager for the foundation in Alabama. “It’s about opening robotics up to girls.”

The problem, Cruse said, is that female students typically are underrepresented on the robotics teams that use VEX-branded kits to learn basics of engineering, electrical design and computer science.

Nationwide, only about 24 percent of participants on those teams are female, she said.

That’s a trend seen beyond the classroom, too: Women also hold only about 24 percent of computer, engineering and science jobs nationwide, according to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau survey.

But in White Plains elementary and middle schools, at least, robotics teams are nearly evenly split, or majority female. Turner, one of the elementary school coaches, attributes that to good role models.

“I don’t think that it even crossed their mind that they couldn’t do this,” Turner said.

Seeing girls on the high school team, she said, might’ve made an especially strong impression — girls like Alexis Alvarez, now a student at Auburn University. Alvarez spoke Thursday afternoon to the children about her two years on the high school team. The all-girl team, state champions twice and entrants in a worldwide competition, had a motto: They could do anything that boys could do, and in high heels.

“Girl power,” Alvarez told the students, “is about breaking the notion that robotics is only for boys.”

There are other factors to consider, though. Julie Walker, a middle school teacher in her first year of coaching robotics, believes fewer girls at younger ages try to participate in sports.

Robotics might just be more accessible, Walker said Thursday.

And at the high school level, coach Jonathan “Bo” Shaw had only two girls apply this year, despite the success last year of Alvarez’s team. He said he had no reason for the disparity.

To boost female participation, the REC Foundation now gives grants to any robotics team that counts girls as half or more of its members.

And in elementary school, at least, Tidwell isn’t going anywhere. She likes building robots and being on a team — even though the boys “don’t listen to us at all,” she said.


Staff writer Zach Tyler: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @ZTyler_Star.