The Iron Maidens of the Bronx

They're building robots and destroying gender stereotypes.

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Violet Killy and Jenny Li were both on the Bronx High School of Science's all-girls robotics team, the Fe Maidens, before they graduated this spring. Fe is the symbol for iron on the periodic table, so the team name is pronounced "Iron Maidens." Damn, I love a good science joke. Bronx Science is a public school well known for its science and math programs, and you have to score highly on a citywide test to get in.

Although there are many girls involved in STEM at the high-school level across the country, robotics competitions tend to be male dominated. This was true for Bronx Science's original robotics team, the Cyborgs, as well. In 2007, the Fe Maidens were formed to increase the number of girls interested in science and engineering. In addition to participating in robotics competitions, the Fe Maidens mentor younger girls in the Bronx and try to spread their love of STEM.

I talked to Violet and Jenny over the phone one weekend in April, and I was very excited to learn that both girls will be attending MIT this fall. They'll be taking that Iron Maiden spirit along with them.

Gillian Jacobs: When did you first have an interest in STEM? Is it the reason you wanted to go to Bronx Science?

Violet Killy: I've always been interested in technology, in science and math. When I was a kid I liked taking apart things and seeing how they worked, VCRs, that kind of stuff, but I hadn't really thought that you could get involved in this sort of thing until you went to college. When I came to Bronx Science, it was a good opportunity to get more involved in science and math, but when I saw these robotics teams it was eye-opening. I think it was the first time I had seen kids my age really doing this sort of thing in a hands-on way, and I definitely wanted to be a part of that.

Jenny Li: I always grew up loving to solve puzzles, and I always played with Legos, but I never really realized what I wanted to do until I entered Bronx Science. I joined the robotics team my sophomore year, and I joined the programming department, so that was really the first time I had hands-on experience of writing code, seeing that code go into a robot, and seeing it come to life. That was really that point where I realized I wanted to pursue computer science, and it made my past love for science and engineering come true. I've been able to pursue that my entire high-school career and, hopefully, one day I'll keep on doing it as a job.

GJ: A common theme that has emerged for me when talking to girls who are interested in STEM is when it becomes practical and applied, that's when people's interest really starts to grow. Can you talk about why you think that makes it so much more exciting?

JL: Part of why Violet and I, and I think the entire robotics team, love outreach and getting the chance to bring robotics to younger children as a hands-on experience, is because you get to see your work result in a product that is working and is in front of your eyes and it's moving, so it's something that you realize it could make a difference if you keep on pursuing it.

GJ: Before you guys came to Bronx Science, did you feel like you were one of the only girls in your grade interested in STEM?

VK: Interest is definitely always there, across the board, but especially once you get toward the middle-school age, I think that's where it starts to diverge. Especially once you get to 11, 12, 13, where the social aspects start to come in. That's when girls don't necessarily have other girls to see doing these things, so boys tend to be more confident in pursuing them.

GJ: Do you also think that's because the games and toys that are geared toward STEM are usually marketed toward boys, so even the toys you're playing with from a young age make it seem like it's a male profession?

VK: Yeah. Even from a real young age, toys are separated by gender. You've got princesses, and Barbies, and that sort of thing, versus trucks and tools. I think there's this mind-set that these are more masculine jobs, more masculine professions, and that's really instilled from an early age. We see that a lot with what we do.

A specific example: we do this outreach initiative at a local community center teaching middle-school girls the basics of how to build robots out of Legos. The first day we had this program, we asked the group of girls what they thought an engineer was, just to start the conversation. One of the girls said it was a man who builds things. It's offhand, they don't really think about it, but it's a mind-set that's instilled from such a young age that this is really a man's job, and that's really what we're trying to turn around.

GJ: Are Legos the introduction to robotics engineering?

VK: The league that we're part of is called FIRST. It stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology." We are in the older group; that's the larger robots competing in the larger game. The Lego robotics is the middle-school level that leads into that smaller-scale same concept. The organization promotes that as the stepping-stone, and then we take that and use it as an introductory tool for girls at other schools to get them interested in something they do on their level.

GJ: Can you talk more about the competitions you participate in?

JL: FIRST has three different levels of competition. For high-school students, there is the Robotics Competition, and it's six weeks long. During a kickoff day, we watch a video that is geared toward this year's theme. For example, this year we have something called "Strongholds," and it's a capture-the-flag game where we build a robot geared to cross defenses of multiple types and then shoot balls toward a tower.

Every single year, we get that video, and then in those six weeks we build a complete robot, and after those six weeks we have weeks of regional competitions, where we go to certain venues and teams from all over the world come and compete to see who wins and goes to nationals.

GJ: I've heard people say that even when they see girls at competitions, there seems to be a gender divide. You don't see a lot of girls in pit crews. Is that something that differentiates your team?

VK: A lot of times when you're in the pits, it's sort of like you see in race cars. Like, the robot pulls out, and they have to work on it really fast, that sort of thing. Often the teams that are in the pits, despite being coed teams, typically are very male-heavy. I know we've had girls from different teams who have reached out to us and asked us how we get girls to be interested and confident.

GJ: It was so exciting to see pictures of you guys with drills on your website. Even something as simple as that, it seems like unless you're coming from an all-female team, once you get to the pit-crew level at a competition, you don't see as many girls hands-on with tools.

VK: It goes back to the confidence you don't see as much. Especially when you're, say, on a team that's majority boys and you're one of the only girls, if not the only girl, on the team, that can definitely be intimidating.

A lot of times the boys seem much more confident about what they know. Even if the girls know as much, they don't assert themselves as much, or it doesn't come as naturally to do that. Many of the girls I've talked to find that they're getting relegated to more of the public relations or the writing, which is also important, but just not what they're interested in.

GJ: What advice do you give girls when they ask you questions about how to get more involved?

VK: The answer really is to be more assertive, but that's not an easy thing to do. It's honestly not being afraid to fail. I think girls are much more quick to second-guess themselves. Just knowing that that's what engineering and science do, it's kind of what they are, it is failing and making mistakes, and seeing problems and mistakes as opportunities. Things are going to go wrong, especially at this level, at the high-school level where you try to build a robot. It's cool.

GJ: That's a lesson that it took me a really long time to learn, so I'm excited to hear that you guys have already figured that out! It'll serve you in really good stead. Can you talk about the different teams, like the drive team, etcetera, for people who don't really know a lot about the FIRST competitions? How does it break down?

VK: There are different seasons throughout the year. First is the build season. Teams do this differently. On our team we break down the tasks into departments, so we have a construction department for the physical side of the robotics, the metal, the frame, the drive, the drive chassis — everything that's the physical components. We've got the electrical. They do all of the wiring. And we have programming. They code the robot and bring it to life with Java. Finally, we've got public relations, where they work on the outreach and act as the voice of the team.

We split off into different work groups. Each of them have a head to lead their department, and then I'm the captain of the team, so I watch over the heads and keep track of what they're doing and make sure everything's working efficiently.

Then, when you get to competition season, that's when your robot's on the field. You've got three people and a coach that go on the field and drive the robot and talk strategy with other teams.

GJ: Do you have any characters from film or TV or books or comics that were early inspirations for you?

JL: I grew up as a tomboy, so I'm very into the Marvel cinematic universes, comic books, and I keep up with superheroes. My favorite superhero is Ironman, and the idea of him being a very talented, skilled computer scientist, but also just being a maker. That really encouraged me, even though he's not a female, to pursue that field and see if I can one day be somewhere like him.

VK: I was raised by actors, and so a lot of the people I heard about that I was inspired by were women who really excelled in those fields, in acting and art. Comedy is a good example. Comedians were typically men, so people like Carol Burnett, Roseanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg. Women I heard about who were not necessarily the norm, women who were putting themselves out there and confident. Those were the ones I really grew up around, like Rosie O'Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, they were the ones I found myself very inspired by when I was younger.

GJ: You can only imagine if there were a female equivalent of Ironman, what an impact that could have on young girls.

VK: Yeah, definitely.

GJ: Let's write it.

JL: The Fe Maiden.

Gillian Jacobs is an actor (Netflix original series Love) and director (the documentary The Queen of Code on fivethirtyeight.com).

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