Words by Sharda Sekaran
Sonia Aktar is standing in the basement of the Bronx High School of Science, a highly competitive specialized math and science public school in New York City, originally founded in 1938 for boys. Sonia is with a group of bubbly teenage girls, some of them wearing purple sweatshirts that read “Talk Nerdy to Me,” in a laboratory surrounded by heavy equipment, circuit boards and power tools. They are demonstrating a robot programmed and engineered to shoot a basketball. Aktar explains, “In non-technical terms, it’s built with rollers and an elevation system with wheels on top that spin the ball out.”
Sonia is a senior and captain of the Fe Maidens, the Bronx Science all girl robotics team. Fe, for those of us who’ve erased high school chemistry from our brains, is how iron is represented in the periodic table of elements. So, the team is the “Iron Maidens.”
The basketball robot was built for a regional robotics competition held annually at the Jacob Javits Center. The Fe Maidens’ academic advisor, Hilary Mallar, describes the competition as “the nerdiest sporting event you can ever imagine. With so many kids working hard to compete, it’s a full house with family and friends, mascots, school bands, crazy costumes, music, deejays, kids dancing in the field…”
Sonia says that of the more than 60 teams, there is typically only one or two other all girl squads — all the others are largely full of guys. Bronx Science also has a coed robotics team called the Sciborgs, but nearly all of its members are boys. Ms. Mallar, says, “Robotics can be an intimidating thing for girls to get involved in.” Sonia explains that although her older brother was into robotics at his high school, she had her reservations. “At first I was leery because there aren’t a lot of women,” she says, “but being in the Fe Maidens helped me to think creatively and to be more open to engineering.”
The Fe Maidens, now in their sixth year, have proven their technical skills. In 2010, they were finalists in regionals and qualified for the national competition in Atlanta. Like other robotics teams, they are organized into distinct departments: construction, electronics, programming and a fourth smaller and less technical team dedicated to public relations.
Hinhon “Jamie” Wong, a senior, is on the public relations team. Unlike Sonia and others teammates planning to pursue mechanical engineering, she wants to be a public interest lawyer. Jamie describes her role as showing the Fe Maidens’ community impact and attracting sponsors. “Our role as a girl team influences what we communicate to the world,” Jamie says. Mentoring is important, from team alums who continue in the field and the teammates themselves through their initiatives to introduce younger girls, in elementary school, to robotics.
With their glowing enthusiasm for hands-on work in the lab and unabashed geekiness (Sonia gushes, “I love power tools and learning!”), the Fe Maidens are sort of like Rosie the Riveter meets the movie “Hackers” (but without the espionage). The novelty of an all girl team has helped them achieve teen nerd rock star status. They’ve been featured in science blogs and a pair of filmmakers even chose them as the subject of a 25-minute documentary, “Drive Like a Girl,” released earlier this year. The attention may have earned the girls a small contingency of haters. As our photographer took group pictures of the Fe Maidens, I overheard a couple of boys in the hallway complaining, “An all girl team… What’s the big deal? What are they all in the public relations department or something?”