The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
In a noisy robotics workshop where girls in goggles belted Hamilton numbers and screwed metal pieces together with specialized tools, Langley Turcsanyi constructs a circuit board on the prototype for a robot that will be finished by her electrical crew for their next competition season this spring.
The 18-year-old is a proud member of the Girls of Steel—an all-female robotics team at Carnegie Mellon University. “I was always interested in technology,” Turcsanyi told Ms., “but I never really saw myself doing this.”
The team’s robots are renowned for their innovative design and functionality. The club has a nine year winning record. Its members have made it to the world championships in their competition circle. Turcsanyi has made it to the FIRST Robotics World Championships each of her four years on the team, and last year, she went with her peers to the final round competition at the Miami Valley Regional Robotics Competition.
“That was the proudest moment I’d say,” she recalls, “just because it was our first time getting to championships.”
In the past 100 years, Turcsanyi’s hometown has gone from the steel capital of the world to a technological hub. STEM dominates the city—with big names like Uber, Google and Carnegie Mellon innovating the field. (Girls of Steel itself is sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University, which has one of the most competitive engineering programs in the country.)
But young girls still face challenges in seizing opportunities in the field. Women in STEM in higher education are still outnumbered by almost 80 percent compared to men, and fewer than 40 of the 4,000 teams competing alongside Girls of Steel in the FIRST Robotics Competition, a worldwide organization based in New Hampshire for young people striving to grow in the STEM field, are girls teams.
Every year, FRC teams are challenged to complete a task, like throwing a ball through a hoop, by building a 120-pound robot in six weeks to do it. The GOS members meet at the workshop at CMU weekly to make progress on their robots and put in countless hours of labor before each competition season.
Turcsanyi also puts in extra hours to diversify the field. About four years ago, she started introducing other girls to computer science and engineering. She holds robotics events for her Girl Scout troop to inspire female empowerment, and neighborhood moms have told her that afterward, their daughters check out library books about robotics.
“My favorite part of doing robotics is mentoring those younger students,” she explained. “They’re always so excited to ask questions and to try out new things.”
When she works with second-graders at Franklin Elementary school, Turcsanyi uses Lego blocks to teach them the basics of robotics. When she works with high school students from Shenzhen, China, and Taipei, Taiwan, who come through the Carnegie Mellon Feiyue program to learn about robotics, she puts together a more complex lesson.
“I personally have had a lot of really cool experiences for outreach,” she observed. “The students from Shenzhen and Taipei come to Pittsburgh, we teach them all about how to make a robot, and then they compete in a competition.” Afterward, these newly formed robotics teams go back to their home countries and share their skills with students in their area.
The work she does outside the lab keeps Turcsanyi encouraged. “It is so exciting,” she declared, “that the next generation is just gonna do such cool things.”
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