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.