Looking back on Girls of Steel’s earliest days, cofounder Patti Rote remembers when the youth robotics program that now serves 180 students from 30 Pittsburgh schools was a lot smaller.
Now, after over a decade in the thick of things in the city’s robotics sector both on and off of Carnegie Mellon University’s campus, Rote is stepping away to retire. Yet she’s retiring with the comforting knowledge that the CMU Field Robotics Center-based program is in good hands and will continue providing girls and nonbinary students a path into the world of STEM.
“I always said to myself, I would never leave the program unless I was really comfortable,” Rote told Technical.ly. “And what I saw, both on the technical side and the fundraising, showed me I could make my exit and finally retire.”
Growing up, Rote was always interested in technology, and she spent years helping her contractor uncle rewire homes. But at her mother’s urging, she went to business school and obtained an MBA from Duquesne University, feeling it’d offer more stability. As fate would have it, one of Rote’s professors convinced her to do a study in robotics, which piqued her interest in the subject. She’d later get the opportunity to judge youth robotics competitions.
Although she greatly enjoyed this work, the 2023 RealLIST Connectors honoree said when she entered tech spaces and competitions, she wondered where the women and girls were. As Technical.ly has reported, there’s a two-pronged issue for youth access to the tech industry: opportunity and exposure. That’s where these after-school robotics teams, coding classes and more come in. Since cofounding Girls of Steel — which is associated with the national FIRST Robotics program — in 2010, Rote is pleased that the numbers have been steadily increasing and that CMU has tried to make the field more inclusive.
“I don’t know what the percentage was before, but now it’s almost 50% of students entering into the School of Computer Science as undergrads that are women, which is phenomenal,” Rote said. “They worked at it. I mean, they never gave up. And that’s why we are where we are today.”
Moving forward, Rote plans to continue volunteering with Girls of Steel. Educator Liz Kysel, a former Girls of Steel program participant herself, will be the organization’s lead technical mentor, with Theresa Richards (a 2022 RealLIST Connectors honoree) continuing as the FIRST Robotics program coordinator. (Rote cofounded Girls of Steel with longtime CMU Robotics Institute professor George Kantor, but Richards has worked with the program almost since the beginning.)
Rote said she feels heartened that so many Girls of Steel members decide to go into STEM careers — take Pittsburgh engineer Molly Urbina as an example — and are often willing to lend the program a hand with regard to volunteering and mentoring students currently going through the program. She intends to keep using her position as a well-connected robotics pro to make Pittsburgh a place that encourages women to thrive in the field.
“There are more opportunities [these days], however, some of the things that I hear from the girls that are graduated out of the program and are now working in STEM fields is that there’s still some apprehension about what girls are really capable of doing,” Rote said. “It’s sad after all these years, but on the other hand, at the end of the day, I guess I have to be satisfied that I had that core group of people to work with, to do what was done with Girls of Steel, and hope for the best. I think maybe [the field changing] will happen before I have six feet in the grave.”
Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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