Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Spelman College SpelBots are breaking down barriers

College junior Jazmine Miller showed off a soccer-playing robot to prospective members of the Spelman Robotics, or SpelBots, team.

"His name is Charles, he's very difficult. That's why it's a he," she laughed. "We kind of see him as human; we talk to him, we yell at him."

Creations such as Charles must be programmed to find and kick the ball and prevent an opposing team of robots from scoring in the annual RoboCup World Championship soccer competition. Since 1997 the matches have been held in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Once a competition begins, the robots are on their own. The team's programming skills have to account for every soccer player scenario, from kicking and blocking to getting up after falling down.

Spelman, the historically black women's college here, has been sending robots to the competition since 2005, often beating graduate students from prestigious tech universities from Germany to Japan. They had their best finish last year in Osaka, Japan, when the team tied for first place with Fukuoka Institute of Technology in Japan in the humanoid robot category.

"Around campus people do recognize our faces; they say, 'Oh, you're on the SpelBots, you're doing the robotics thing. I saw you in Jet magazine.' I really see it when I go abroad," said Miller, a computer science and engineering major.

Early Romance with Robotics
Miller's romance with robotics started early. A self-described "world-traveling military kid," she was on the robotics team at her high school in the Netherlands.

Jonecia Keels, from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is Miller's co-captain. She was a little less sure of a computer career.

"For a long time I didn't think I was smart enough to get into computer science. I only saw males in the industry and I just didn't think I had what it took to be a computer programmer," said Keels.

Two things helped change her mind. First, the confidence she gained at this women's college.

"I know a big reason why there's not a lot of women in computer science is because of intimidation. At an all-women's school, they already know your capabilities. So it is easier to take leadership roles and go that step further without added stress," said Keels.

Lack of Role Models
"Looking back at my life, there were a lack of role models for me, being African American and Korean," Williams said.

So he sought out a teaching position at a historically-black college or university. Creating the team was a way to bring a new and creative challenge to his students.

"There's a big emphasis on creativity, collaboration, the social aspects of engineering and computer science. It would do great wonders for our country on a global scale if we maximize that pool of women, and underrepresented students like African Americans, in computer science," Williams said.

"The teams we were competing with were all male, all white," said Miller. "And the first thought that came to me was, we are going to blow their minds!" she laughed.

for more of the story, go to

All-girl, All-African American Robotics team is breaking barriers from Mari Fagel on Vimeo.

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