Working on a project

White Plains Robotics Team members, clockwise from left, Chase Chandler, Rebecca Johns and Alexis Alvarez work on their winning robot in the school.

An all-girl team from White Plains High School next month will compete in an international robotics competition held in Kentucky.

If the 10 such contests the teenagers have already competed in this year are any indicator, the girls may have to contend not only with their opponents, but with chauvinism, too.

“‘Oh, do you need any help with that?’” Chase Chandler, the team’s captain and a senior, parroted the question she hears most often at such competitions — coming most often from boys on other teams.

“We know what we’re doing,” Chandler always replies.

The three girls on White Plains High School science teacher Jonathan Shaw’s robotics team — juniors Rebecca Johns and Alexis Alvarez and Chandler — in April will travel to Louisville for the VEX Worlds championship competition. They will be one of two teams from Calhoun County to do so, and among the seven teams qualifying from Alabama.

The team’s ticket to the championship, set for April 20 through April 24, hangs on the wall in the high school’s lobby — a Best Design award won during the state competition earlier this month at Jacksonville State University.

The team’s robot — Juice Box, they named it — punched that ticket. Rhinestones bedazzle numerical identification plates on its sides.

“We had the overall most unique design of robots,” Alvarez said Monday in the school’s robotics lab, a classroom on the ground floor.

The team isn’t going to the world championship, where students from 23 other countries will compete, because of the rhinestones, though.

The contests this year revolve around teams designing a robot capable of scooping up and then shooting balls into goals on the other side of a similarly sized pad, team sponsor Shaw explained. Each match features four robots, with teams pairing up into alliances to work together for the win. Bonus points can be earned if one of the robots in the alliance can lift and hold aloft the other robot — which is what Shaw’s team focused on.

Juice Box over the course of the year’s competitions has had its share of problems, with Chandler and the rest of the team working together to rectify kinks in the design. They’ve sometimes had to work for a fair match, too.

“We’re girls, so they think they can pull things over on us,” Johns said Monday.

Johns offered as an example a team from a neighboring county she and her teammates competed against recently which surreptitiously changed the air pressure feeding a ball-throwing robot, perhaps hoping for a slight advantage, she said. Johns called them out for it.

“They totally underestimate y’all,” Shaw said Monday of such teams.

None of the three girls plans on pursuing a degree in science or engineering. Chandler wants to be a substance abuse counselor, while Johns is considering going into missionary work. Alvarez wants to be an event planner.

Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics related fields — commonly referred to as STEM jobs — tend to earn 33 percent more than those who chose other occupations, though, according to a study prepared by researchers for the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration.

While women hold roughly half of all jobs in the United States, the study notes, only about 24 percent of those in STEM fields are female.

Experts say that under-representation may be in part because of similarly dismissive attitudes as the ones encountered by Chandler and her team — or outright harassment — of women by their male and even female colleagues.

“Unfortunately, the experience that they’re having is a pretty pervasive one,” said Heather Metcalf, director of research and analysis at the Association for Women in Science.

From high school through college and on into the workplace, Metcalf said, women are often the victims of stereotyping and gender bias — but they’re not the only ones.

“It’s not just about gender,” Metcalf said, with similar obstacles confronting those of color, those with disabilities, and those identifying as gay or lesbian.

Chandler won a scholarship to Jacksonville State University for her participation this year on the robotics team. Johns gave up color guard to join. The girls especially like proving to male competition they’re an equal match.

“I think it’s empowering,” Johns said.

“We can do everything the boys can do,” Chandler said.

“And we can do it in heels,” Johns added. The girls laughed.


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