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Robot engineers.

Byline: Julia Reihs The Register-Guard

Maggie Harrison wants to program a robot that can take over the world.

"It would kind of look like a human a little bit," she said.

She also wants to be an engineer.

Inspired by science fiction movies that she watched with her dad, Maggie developed a deep interest in robots. "I just think they're so cool," she said.

For the past three weeks, Maggie, 11, has embarked on a path toward achieving her dream. Using Mindstorms computer software and building kit, she has worked with a teammate to construct an autonomous robot that can navigate itself through a miniature, custom-built city.

Maggie is one of seven girls between the ages of 9 and 13 who have attended the i(<3)Robot camp, which wraps up today at the Eugene Sudbury School.

The camp was designed by co-director and teacher Hannah Felton, 25. With a background in biology and a love for robotics, Felton was frustrated that enrollment at the school's robotics camps has been low among girls - a trend she experienced herself back when she was in high school.

"I was one of two girls and sometimes the only girl," she said.

After receiving a phone call from a parent, Felton decided to design a robotics camp specifically for anyone who identifies as a girl and who has an interest in expanding their engineering, math, physics and programming skills.

"(The parent) asked me if we let the girls program the robots, or only the boys," she recalled. The conversation with the parent still haunts Felton.

"We decided to give a shot at a camp that was only for girls, to see if they were more comfortable with that setup," she said.

Historically, many of the first programmers in the digital computer era were women, but the number of women in computer science has decreased sharply since the mid-1980s, Felton said. As of 2010, women comprised less than 20 percent of all college students enrolled as computer science majors, according to data gathered by the National Science Foundation.

"I think it's generational," Felton said. "I think parents are still kind of thinking that programming and robots are for boys, and volley ball and dance - it's more for the girls."

She hopes camps such as i(<3)Robot can help change that mindset.

During the camp, the girls have been using Mindstorms EV3 kits made by Lego to construct robotic cars. On the computer with the Mindstorms programming application, they write instructions for the robot, attach wires to the robot body, and download the program into the car. The programming software emphasizes logic and geometry.

"They get really good at angles and diameters by the end of this because they're using them all day every day," Felton said.

After the first week of learning basic robotics, Felton presents the participants with what she calls the "mini-urban challenge": design their own car, and program it to successfully navigate through obstacles in a miniature city.

"They make their own decisions about why they build it the way they do, and then they spend the rest of the week programming and researching real autonomous cars."

"Autonomous" means the robots must be pre-programmed to perform certain actions without any intervention. The key to completing the final challenge is abiding by the rules of the mini-city, as well as sensing other cars and objects in a car's path.

Nellie Schmitke- Rosiek, 9, named her car Peanut Butter and Jelly. It's equipped with an ultrasonic and color sensor and gears for wheels.

"It's basically a normal robot," she said.

Doll-like pedestrians, toy cars and zoo animal figurines preside in green butcher-paper park blocks amidst a puzzle mat and electrical taped streets.

Scattered throughout the city are lines of different colors, which the cars detect. Red means stop, yellow means slow down, blue means park, and green signifies that the car needs to turn around.

Frustration and curiousity characterize the final days of camp, as the girls work to ready their robots for their floor trials, and prepare presentations about the cars they have built and researched.

"Our robot keeps falling apart - that's one of the biggest challenges," Maggie said.

Felton floats among team members to answer questions and ask new ones. She watches the girls make connections and work together to solve programming conundrums.

"I think the coolest thing for me is watching them so frustrated the first week with getting their robot to do what they want," she said. "And by the end of the week, we're like 'Do you need help?' And they're like, 'Go away. We're working on something else. We already finished what you wanted us to do.' "

For some participants, the camp has fed an interest in robotics that will continue. Maggie hopes to compete in the First Lego League, an international robotics competition for students ages 9 to 14, while Nellie wants to work on software from home to learn more advanced robotics.

"I want to be a computer scientist," Nellie said. "And a person who builds robots, basically."

Follow Julia on Twitter @JuliaVi12. Email her at julia.reihs@registerguard.com.
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Title Annotation:Eugene; Girls with an interest in technology build autonomous vehicles that can find their own way in a "city"
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 31, 2015
Words:855
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