AAEC-EM ninth-grade students

Coach Chris Strickland, left, watches while AAEC-EM ninth-grade students Kaitlyn Strickland and Sidney Casillas test an EDR robot, which is made of metal and intended for older, more advanced students. 

A group of West Valley girls saw a lack of representation and diversity in the fields of robotics, so they took matters into their own hands.

Now known as the West Valley GEMS, which stands for Girls Empowering, Mentoring and Supporting, the group consists of current and former robotics students of the team that now teaches at the newly opened Edison School of Innovation.

The GEMS dedicate their time and expertise to mentor younger students and spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) throughout the community at large, especially in other girls.

“We didn’t see as much in IQ (plastic robotics) because – that’s the younger kids – everyone’s doing that; they’re kind of learning the basics of robotics. But when we moved to EDR, which is the metal robots (for older, more advanced students), we see that it’s mostly boys. There’s not a lot of girls there,” explained Sidney Casillas, a ninth-grade student at Avondale’s Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center – Estrella Mountain who volunteers as one of the GEMS.

“It’s kind of disheartening – I guess would be the right word – because it’s kind of hard to bond with the boys because they don’t want to talk to us. So, I mean, it’d be nice to have those other girls there who want to speak to us and can talk about the struggles that we’ve been through.”

The GEMS group was solidified last fall, though its roots date back much earlier. REC Foundation and VEX Robotics host Girl Powered events and encourage local groups to partner and hold their own. The students that now comprise GEMS got involved two years ago, and since then have held visits to Glendale’s START @ West-MEC campus and REI’s Litchfield Park distribution center.

According to the Glendale- and Peoria-serving K-8 STEM charter school’s principal, Cheryl Rose, successful Girl Powered events led them to increase the frequency, and following the school’s opening in August, the GEMS became an official group.

The group also applied for – and was awarded – an $8,000 STEM grant from Grand Canyon University (GCU). Its volunteers will present to GCU in May about how the grant has been used thus far.

The West Valley GEMS members participate in other events, too.

Four mentors attended the University of Arizona’s Connect2STEM event, which was held at the down- town Phoenix medical campus on January 26.

In the near future, the group will participate in Glendale Public Library’s Technology and Do-It- Yourself Fair, which is part of the Arizona SciTech Festival. The free event is noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, February 16.

Ten days later, the school will hold a community fair in conjunction with Harvest Church. (The Edison School of Innovation is located on the church grounds at the northwest corner of 83rd and Northern avenues.) From 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 26, the event will feature businesses from the community, a Goodwill re- cycling drive and fundraiser, a blood drive and more. The GEMS will be there, too.

“It’s just another opportunity for the GEMS to let families know what they’re doing, the programs that they offer, because they feel very strongly about girls being involved in STEM,” Rose explained.

In late March, another Girl Powered event is planned at the START @ West-MEC campus, and, in April, the GEMS volunteered to help with the Kadima. Ventures’ Innovation Fair 2019 at the Phoenix Convention Center, though they are waiting for more information. That event is scheduled for Thursday, April 4, and Friday, April 5.

With more resources now, thanks to GCU’s grant, Rose says GEMS  is ramping up. In June the group will hold a summer camp and next school year it will conduct biweekly meetings.

“We’re kind of in that birthing stage where we’ve done a little bit and now we’re getting ready to just go full force and get everything going full time,” Rose said.

Teams often travel to robotics com- petitions, too. VEX Robotics hosted a Night at the Museum competition in Chantilly, Va., in January, and the Prescott Mile High VRC Qualifying Competition MS/HS was earlier this month. On February 16, some students will participate in the Google VEX Turning Point High School Tournament in Sunnyvale, Calif., and in April the CREATE U.S. Open Robotics Championship’s VRC High School Division in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The stigma against girls in robotics shows even at competitions, ac- cording to AAEC-EM ninth-grader Kaitlyn Strickland.

“We go to robotics competitions, and we won second place but no one, not even the sixth-place team, would want to pair with us just because they saw we’re girls and were like, ‘Oh, it must have been an accident you got to where you are,’” she said.

Rose added, “It’s one of the things that they wanted to do, is overcome that bias in the robotics world.”

Casillas noted that one of her fellow GEMS members was on a high school robotics team, but was never asked about her skills and was instead assumed to serve as an organizer.

Rose chimed in, “So she quit, be- cause she decided that that’s not why she joined.”

Now mostly in high school, the girls who comprise GEMS won’t al- ways be around, though. So, inspiring younger students to eventually take the reins is important.

“They’re currently seventh-grade students that are in the robotics (pro- gram at Edison School of Innovation),” Rose said. “They’re learning from the high school students so that they can take over the mentoring as they get older. It’s always wanting to make sure that we’re partnering students together

  • And with older and younger students
  • So that we can maintain the mentoring program over the years.”