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Breaking barriers with robotics

Whitby all-girls troop build robot for competition at UOIT

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Team Where’s Waldo, made up of Trafalgar Castle School students Dolly Sharma, left, Madison Bean, Cierra Jagan, Georgia Douglas and Lauren Flowers, were just one of many teams taking part in the FIRST Robotics Canada Greater Toronto East Regional competition at UOIT and Durham College. More than 50 teams competed in games that saw them try to take over their opponent’s fort. (Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express).

 

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

The tank-like treads attached to the small robot roll across the surface of the arena and crash through a small barrier into the opponent’s territory.

The red bot with 1547 emblazoned on the side is controlled by an all-girls team from Trafalgar Castle School and is competing in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) at UOIT and Durham College. The event has drawn teams from across North America to the Oshawa campus.

And it’s safe to say the team proud of it, although they’d like to see more.

“One of our main initiatives is to promote girls in science and technology,” says Lauren Flowers, one of the team’s veteran members.

The team, nicknamed Where’s Waldo, has been on the robotics circuit for more than a decade and has inspired many girls from the private boarding school to pursue careers in the sciences, a field typically dominated by males.

According to Flowers, 87 per cent of the girls involved with Where’s Waldo have gone on to pursue careers in science and technology, herself included as the 17-year-old hopes to pursue a teaching career in the field.

“Definitely, the team has impacted the girls’ passion and innovation for science and technology,” she says. “I just love robotics. I’m really sad to be leaving because…we’re like one big happy family.”

The trend seems to be taking hold as Where’s Waldo, the only all-girls team in the competition last year, was joined by a second all-girls group this year.

According to John Hobbins, the director of FRC for Ontario, that’s exactly what the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization wants to see.

“That’s one of our big mandates. You talk about diversity and inclusivity and the whole idea of elevating and valuing females in non-traditional roles,” he says.

The Greater Toronto East regional competition at UOIT is a qualifier for the larger FIRST world championship to be held later this year in St. Louis.

This year’s theme, a partnership between FRC and Disney, is called Stronghold and has robots throwing balls into their opponent’s towers for points, as well as breaching various defences blocking the arena.

Hobbins says the goal was to create an event that would captivate the audience.

“To create more of an aesthetic, a gamer interaction that’s more engaging for the audience, so you get this theme of the medieval days or castle capturing,” he says. “The audience is exceptionally receptive of it.”

For Where’s Waldo, the strategy was to breach defences for points and to score points into the lower holes instead of launching the balls into a higher point slot.

“There were different perspective we could have taken.” Flowers says.

As part of the competition, each team had only six weeks to build their robot and program it for competition. During each round for the first 15 seconds of the match, the robot acts autonomously, or without human control.

With the time restraint of six weeks, Flowers says the small 16-member team decided to target its focus.

“We decided to focus on breaching defences, so going over the rough terrain, going over the mote, just sort of have a robot that’s versatile to all the different terrains,” she says.