Just a few short years ago, the opening recording of a woman's voice singing "The Star Spangled Banner" might have been the most prominent female presence at Saturday's annual robotics competition in Batavia. Now girls are members on many of the robotics teams and boast a few all-female teams.
"We're seeing more and more girls realizing they can compete in the man's world," said Ron Karabowicz, organizer of the Great Lakes-Midwest-Illinois VEX Robotics Regional Championship at Rotolo Middle School. His daughter, Denise, was one of the trendsetters 13 years ago when her interest in engineering led Karabowicz to become a leader in the Fox Valley Robotics organization.
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"She got me hooked," said Karabowicz. His daughter, who goes by Dee in the robotics world, is now a 23-year-old mechanical engineer who, with the rest of her family, volunteered with dozens of others to make this interstate competition possible.
Cheered on by nearly 300 parents and supporters, a record 56 teams from as far away as Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa engaged in head-to-head battles with radio-controlled robots the students designed, built and operated. The matches took place in a 12-foot-by-12-foot ring filled with small colored bags of plastic pellets. Competitors ranged from 6th graders to high school seniors.
Teams won points by maneuvering their wheeled robots to pick up the bags and deposit them in troughs set at different levels of difficulty. Applause and roars followed the last-second placing of a handful of bags in the highest trough, while a heartsick gasp signaled when a robot tipped over or accidentally dropped its load.
Last year, Lissette Beltran was one of three females on the teams from Bartlett High School. This year, the 18-year-old was one of eight females.
"It's changing. The people are changing. The times are changing," said Beltran, a senior in the school's academy of science, technology, engineering and math who also participates in Project Lead the Way, an effort to promote engineering and the sciences.
Many of the design and engineering methods used to make the robots in the competition sponsored by VEX, a maker of the robot parts and software, are what these students learn in their high school classes, said coach and teacher Gary Cotie. His teams met after school two nights a week "and a few more furious nights recently," he said.
Some of the veteran teams crafted robots that used more than $1,000 in parts, while others featured more simple designs. In the pit room where teams fine-tuned and repaired their robots, the rookie team of Scoutmaster Bryan Hedstrom and coach Tom Rooney of Boy Scout Troop 38 in Des Plaines got welcomed advice from girls on a more-seasoned team from Batavia.
"We're trying to just keep up," Rooney said with a chuckle. The Troop 38 team scored seconds into its very first match.
"I think everyone was pretty pumped," Rooney said, adding that the boys should be proud of their hard work to build their robot. "Nobody but the boys have tightened a nut on this thing. They're doing the whole project."
The Great Lakes-Midwest-Illinois VEX Robotics Championship is one of a series of VEX Robotics Competitions taking place internationally throughout the year. Five of the best teams from Saturday's event qualified for the 2013 VEX Robotics World Championship in April in Anaheim, Calif.
For more information about robotics competitions, visit the website RobotEvents.com. For more about Fox Valley Robotics visit BataviaRobotics.com or FoxValleyRobotics.com.