At the 2022 Vex World Robotics Competition in Dallas, Texas. Charli Hughes and her team, members of Gus Robotics, were competing in the division finals for the first time in the organization’s history. After spending months working on their robot and competing in qualifiers, they finally made it to the largest stage competition in the nation. While observing the competition during their match, Hughes noticed that the opposing team was having trouble with their robot; it wouldn’t start driving.
“I thought ‘Oh my gosh, we might have a chance here,’” Hughes recalled.
The goal of the match was to grab a mobile goal and place it on a balance. In order to get their robot to do this, Hughes and her team needed to design a locking claw mechanism to grab and let go objects. The competition was in the fact that their opponent had the same objective.
“There was a limited amount [on the field] so you really wanted to hold onto it once you got it,” Hughes said. “One of the teams started going for it and unfortunately we designed our locking claw mechanism a bit too well because it wouldn’t let go, so [the other team] ended up pulling us over.”
Despite their robot being pulled out, the team is inspired to work harder next year and make it back, better than ever.
Hughes said “it was an unfortunate loss,” but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she and her team placed in the top 1% in the world. But to get here, Hughes had to overcome many obstacles involving being a woman working in the STEM field.
The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have long been dominated by men. In recent years, however, women are becoming more represented in the STEM workforce, and Charli Hughes, member of the First Robotics Competition program at Gus Robotics, is witnessing these changes unfold.
Hughes dove head first into the robotics scene in sixth grade, and since then, has made many accomplishments. With her team, she qualified for Vex IQ World Robotics Competition in 2019, 2020, and 2022. She was able to compete at the 2019 and 2022 competitions but the pandemic prevented the event in 2020 from happening. This year, Hughes’ team qualified for Division Finals for the first time in Gus Robotics history.
Over the years, one thing Hughes has noticed is the increase of diversity within the STEM field.
“In recent years I have seen more girls, but I’ve noticed that there aren’t a lot of boys and girls working together,” Hughes said. “It’s mostly all girls teams and all boys teams.”
Some women are also not treated with the same respect as their male counterparts, Hughes has noticed this as well.
“I have definitely been treated differently,” Hughes recalled. “I remember one of the most notable times was when someone had refused to shake my hand after shaking the hands of every male teammate I had.”
The STEM gap has been debated for years. It refers to the lack of women in the STEM workforce and the gap between salaries of men and women working in the same fields.
“Women make up only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math,” stated the American Association of University Women (AAUW). “And men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college.”
It’s easy to wonder why the gap still exists when it seems like we’ve come so far in terms of gender equality. According to the AAUW, “Girls’ math abilities [are underestimated] as early as preschool.” Studies done by the organization have shown that elementary school boys are more encouraged to do well in math than the girls of the same grade and skill level.
Younger girls can be inspired by seeing women working in STEM careers. Only seeing men portrayed as successful doctors, lawyers, and scientists in the media can be damaging and intimidating to young girls. They are taught from an elementary age that men are more capable, confident, and successful than them, and the mindset can easily follow them well into adulthood.
Hughes’ robotics interest has motivated her to consider the field as a future career. For so many other young women across the world, the initial motivation to join a program is crucial. Schools are an ideal setting for introductory programs to take place.
“I wish that more schools had better robotics programs,” Hughes said. “It took a lot of searching for me to find mine, and I happened to be in the right place when [someone was] talking about it.”
Robotics isn’t just about being able to program robots to perform tasks, it also requires good communication, critical thinking, and perseverance.
“Robotics builds problem solving and teamwork abilities since you need several iterations of the same robot to get the final product,” Hughes said. “You work with the team the entire way.”
Many organizations and advocate groups hope that the gap between women and men in the STEM workforce can be bridged. Implementing programs in schools and encouraging young girls to follow their own interests are two approaches that can make the world of a difference. The most important thing, however, is to make sure that young girls are given the confidence that they need to succeed.
“I think that I’m capable of doing the same things that all of the boys who I work with are,” said Hughes. “And it’s a matter of letting everyone know that women are capable too.”