Biz/TechFIRST Robotics provides welcoming atmosphere for women in STEM

druvsareenMarch 11, 20197 min

Druv Sareen, Biz-Tech Reporter

FIRST Robotics is a haven for those trying to teach their daughters about STEM.

From their elementary school programs, to their robotics leagues, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) is helping prepare kids for a future increasingly dependent on robotics and technology.

An education focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (also known as STEM) has become an educational focus for many parents.

Part of preparing the future generation is creating an inclusive atmosphere for girls to learn about STEM, and this is where FIRST excels.

Emily Adam and Erika Zhao from Team SWAT review data during a FIRST robotics competition on March 10, 2019, at Humber College North campus. (Druv Sareen)

Paul Keenan, a  12-year veteran of FIRST Robotics, has seen the competition welcome more girls every year.

“FIRST is a big proponent of women in STEM, there’s a girls in STEM Council and advisory group and every year in June or May we have a girls in STEM weekend,” Keenan said.

“The first two events we had, they’re about half, 48 per cent of the participants,” he said.

No team represents FIRST’s commitment to women in STEM more than the team than Team SWAT 771 from St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn school in Oakville.

Adalia Spadafora (left), Amy Darling and Katie Wessel of Team SWAT wheel their robot into the competition on March 9, 2019, at Humber College North campus. (Druv Sareen)

Team SWAT (St. Mildred’s Women Advancing Technology) was formed in 2002, one of the older teams in FIRST robotics. It was part of the winning alliance at the Humber College Ontario District Event along with team Simbiotics and team DAVE.

Audra August, a mentor for the team, has been connected for the last five years. She has seen the shift towards women in STEM first hand.

“There’s been a really interesting shift globally. I would say just in my time there, I think there’s a lot of exposure and a lot of really big interest,” August said. “They’ve always really been focused on getting more girls involved and really helping to break down the barriers.”

Emily Adam and Amy Darling from Team SWAT make last minute adjustments to their robot on March 10, 2019. Humber College North campus hosted the FIRST robotics competition. (Druv Sareen)

Alexandra Hon, captain of Team SWAT, said she’s has been connected with the team for the past five years. She is seeing a changing attitude towards women.

“There are definitely people who support us but there are some people who think that if we don’t do well, it’s because we’re a woman and that’s where it gets kind of a little bit finicky,” Hon said.

“There is that fine line of the generation who still doesn’t understand that females can be a part of this,” she said.

“We had a father who’s coming in, they were visiting the competitions and he came around and … asked where are all the boys to lift the robot,”  Hon said. “We were like, ‘what do you mean?’ And he’s said, ‘don’t you need them to help you with the robot?’ And we said, ‘well, we do all of it ourselves.'”