Professor Andrew Williams often tries to recruit undecided majors to Spelman College's computer science and dual degree engineering departments by showing off some cute and versatile robots.
"They'll say, 'You know, I tried that in high school,'" Williams says. But then, from the tentative or negative reactions from some of the young women, his next question is, "Someone told you couldn't do it, didn't they? And they'll say, 'Yeah.'"
With help from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Williams, who chairs the computer science department, created the SpelBots, the first-ever, all female, African-American RoboCup robotics team. The hands-on experience of the RoboCup team inspires confidence among young women who might not otherwise pursue the traditionally male fields of computer science and robotics.
"We're battling external opinions as well as internalized beliefs," notes Williams. "We need to show students positive examples of how that can be overcome."
The SpelBots have competed in Asia, Europe and North America with four-legged robotic dogs and two-legged humanoid robots. In the 2009 Robocup Japan Open competition in Osaka, the team tied with a top technology university from Japan in the championship match of the two-legged Standard Platform League Nao humanoid division.
The Spelbots are currently competing with an autonomous humanoid robot, which is a complex machine loaded with two cameras, infrared sensors, sonar sensors, a gyroscope, an accelerometer and bumpers that indicate when it's hitting something. Those bumpers help the 'bots know whether they have hit the ball during RoboCup soccer competitions.
And, when they're not playing soccer, these 'bots can kick it up on the dance floor, thanks to some extra moves programmed by their Spelbot coaches.
Jazmine Miller and Jonecia Keels are co-captains of the SpelBots. The team was created in 2004, and since then, its success has made these robotics wizards a bit like rock stars at the college.
"Around campus, people do know us, they recognize our faces and they say, 'Oh, you're the SpelBots captain,' or, 'You're doing the robotics thing. I saw you in Jet magazine,' or stuff like that. I really see it when I go abroad," says Miller.
Miller has certainly had some important science and technology role models. Her mom is an Air Force satellite engineer and her dad is a science fiction lover who works for the FBI. "I kept hearing in my conversations with my dad, even when I was little, how robots and artificial intelligence could affect our society," says Miller.
Keels needed a little bit of encouragement before she realized she belonged in technology. "I know a big reason why there are not a lot of women in computer science is because of intimidation and just ignorance about what it actually is," says Keels. "There are a lot of false perceptions that you're stuck in the basement or in a lab by yourself. That's not what it is at all! It's a very social environment because there's a lot of teamwork involved."
Occasionally, Williams and team members have encountered disrespect during competitions.
"I try to use it as a teaching moment," says Williams. "There's still global racism, there's global sexism, and what they do in computer science and engineering here at Spelman can have a positive global impact."
But with confidence from their academic and competitive success, the team can turn the dismissive attitudes of some into a show of their skills.
"We went to the RoboCup competition in Japan. There were a few girls there, I was happy to see that, but the teams we were competing with were all male, all white. And the first thought that came to me was, we are going to blow their minds!" laughs Miller. "I really love traveling with the SpelBots because I feel like I am literally tearing apart the stereotypes about computer scientists and roboticists," she adds.
Both Miller and Keels expect to be running their own software engineering companies someday. And they see endless possibilities for robotics in the 21st century.
"I find robots really cool because you can have them help society in a lot of ways," says Keels. "One of our research projects is to have a health care humanoid in which we create a robot to help disabled patients or veterans fetch simple objects, like a glass of water, or medication. So I see robotics going in an exponential direction and only helping society. I definitely want to be a part of that."
Before ending each SpelBots meeting with a cheer, Williams shares a Winston Churchill quote that inspires him and the team when times are good or challenging:
"Success is never final, failure is seldom fatal, but it's courage that counts."
This story was originally written for Science Nation and was republished with permission here. Video: Science Nation, Miles O'Brien/Science Nation Correspondent, Marsha Walton/Science Nation Producer.