My sister and I are coders on our competitive high school robotics team, and we are on a mission to reshape the future of competitive robotics.
If you ever go to a robotics competition, one thing will immediately grab your attention. The girls are few and far between, about 20% of total participants in our league. As female coders at these competitions, we are in some very limited company. So one can’t help but ask the question… where da ladies at?
The gender gap extends way beyond the competitive robotics world, which almost seems to be a microcosm of the tech industry itself. According to the American Association of University Women, just 12% of engineers are women, and the number of women in computer science has fallen from 35% in 1990 to just 26% today.
For my sister and I, it was a mega challenge to break into technical roles on our team. After spending our first year watching the guys code and build the robot while we… wait for it… designed t-shirts, we decided to take matters into our own hands. We hit the books (YouTube) hard in the offseason and chipped away at the ever-elusive C++, the coding language used to run our team’s robot. Fast forward a year… we caught a lucky break when the guys who were in charge of coding quit the team at the last minute. We jumped in as the team’s coders and we’ve never looked back!
We are convinced that girls aren’t going into tech because it’s generally not on their radar, they don’t see other girls going into tech, and there’s no girl culture to support it.
Enter Nerdy Girls.
We created Nerdy Girls to change all of that and to create a new path for girls into the male-dominated world of robotics. We want to take girls with no tech experience and arm them with the skills they need to take over technical roles in competitive robotics and beyond.
We spent almost two years researching and developing our own program to help girls become master robot trainers. The program is designed to feel like a real-life video game, with 6 levels of increasingly difficult robotics projects. As a girl works on leveling up, she will also work her way through a series of increasingly complicated robot kits and programming languages, until she is building her own robots with found parts and coding in C++ or Java.
VEX Robotics is a major part of our program. After reviewing and trying out a bunch of robotics systems, we decided on VEX because their robots are so much fun and so scalable. They work for absolute beginners, but also for advanced robot trainers. We use VEX IQ robots coded in Modkit for VEX our girls in Levels 1 & 2 of our program and VEX EDR robots coded in ROBOTC for Levels 3 & 4.
We’re creating all of our own YouTube tutorials to guide girls through the projects so that each girl can work at her own pace on her own robot. The tutorials bring together both the building and coding aspects of the projects which are equally critical components. It’s one thing to build a robot, but it’s an entirely different thing to code a robot to complete a challenge autonomously.
One unexpected bonus for us is that our YouTube tutorials are getting thousands of views by VEX robot builders around the country who need help with the coding side of their robotics projects.
We are also carving out a new culture for teenage girls in our county. Nerdy Girls hosts weekly meetups which are essentially Friday night robot building parties, complete with a dark, industrial vibe, disco ball, and an awesome playlist. Girls just show up, watch YouTube videos, and work together on robots. It’s mind-blowingly fun.
What’s next for Nerdy Girls? We just formed the first ever Nerdy Girls robotics team (part of Level 5) and it’s going great so far. We have a group of 10 girls who are learning Java and building a competition robot from a complicated kit of parts. Because our goal is to arm girls with technical skills, every girl on the team has an active role in building, programming, and driving the robot during competitions. No one stands on the sidelines.
Ultimately, we want to have Nerdy Girls chapters all over the country, particularly in rural, low-income urban, and other underserved areas. We’re building our model to be scalable, creating infrastructure and building out all of our online tutorials. Our goal is to partner with motivated teen girls around the country to help them start their own chapters. All they would need is funding to buy robot kits and laptops, a community partner to provide space, and a deep passion for robot training.
Prepare yourselves, friends, because the Nerdy Girls underground robot society will soon be infiltrating your neighborhood.
– Parker Mayer, 11th Grade
Nerdy Girls is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation operating in the state of Washington. Co-founders are sisters Parker and Greta Mayer, grades 11 and 9. More information can be found on their website, nerdygirlsproject.org.