Cyanea Zheng and Isabella Wehner were excited to join their high school’s robotics club last year, but not so excited to discover they would be asked to send out funding applications instead of building robots.
So the Grade 12 Templeton Secondary students, both 17, decided to start their own club, and formed Puddle Jumper Robotics, the only all-girls team in B.C. and the first such team to compete in the international FIRST Robotics Competition in the spring.
Zheng and Wehner are among the 11 members of the Puddle Jumpers, which exists separately from the school’s 40-member male team called Vancouver Rainstorm, against whom they will compete.
“When I first joined (the school’s Vancouver Rainstorm), there were 40 males and I was asked to do the emailing and writing (of fundraising and grant applications), stereotypically things that were done by women, I guess,” said Zheng. “It was the girls who were doing most of the fundraising.”
They said they asked for the opportunity to learn how to build robots from the older students in the club, so they would know what to do when the male members graduated.
“In a team of 40, it was kind of intimidating. Nobody talked to us and I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” said Zheng.
She agreed the girls didn’t have the same level of skills to build the robots, “but we wanted to watch and to learn. They wouldn’t make time for us.”
And Wehner said instead of teaching newcomers, “everybody’s focus was on finishing the project” for last year’s competition.
She also acknowledged that she tends to stay in the background in a group. “I don’t see myself as the most outspoken person because I’m shy. I can see being cut out of projects because of that” in a mixed group.
Zheng said there are some assumptions that some people hold about women in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or more recently STEAM, with the addition of arts and design.
“They don’t do it on purpose,” said Wehner. “It’s something you have to accept. But it’s kind of unfair that just because of my gender I have to fight for the same opportunity to learn.”
So the two decided to launch the Puddle Jumpers, the name a clever nod to the main group’s Rainstorm. They have the support of supervising robotics club teacher Warren Lloyd and of the group.
The two girls even remain co-presidents (for now) of the main group, as both groups exist under the umbrella of Templeton Robotics. They have spoken among themselves about tokenism or the perception of it.
“No one has said it to my face, but, yeah, I think there’s the idea that I got this role because of my gender,” said Zheng. “I feel our (girls’) photos are used a lot more to make (the club) look a lot more diverse.”
“Isabella and Cyanea earned this spot,” said Lloyd, although some of the male members may have thought it was their turn to lead. “Cyanea and Isabella are good project managers. They have good time-management skills, communication skills, and they stay on task and get things done. They earned it. There’s no tokenism about it.”
He also said studies in STEM industries show women bring different skills to a position, such as “more patience and more manners,” while “men have a tendency to want to take control” and to dominate a project.
He said segregating the students is a “social experiment” in a field still dominated by men in the work world, where females and males will work together.
The girls will compete in the competition in March (likely held virtually) against the Rainstorm, which has greater depth and breadth of experience and talent.
In the meantime, Zheng and Wehner will be trying to raise the entry fee for the Puddle Jumpers and have launched a GoFundMe page (search first all-women’s robotics team) with a goal of $6,500 for the entry fee, robot parts and marketing items.
And win or lose, their goal is to make it easier for girls to enter into robotics and consider a post-secondary education in STEM.
“I feel the younger members will get a lot more out of this,” said Wehner, who with Zheng graduates in June.