GENIUS Girls Learn STEM Skills Through Robotics

GENIUS teammates Annika Garbers, Grayson McMichael, Selena Nie, Amanda Pham, and Aiden Kedzierski designed, programmed, and built their robot themselves.
Credit Mary Claire Kelly / WABE
Audio version of this story here.

When girls enter adolescence, they grow out of more than just their old clothes.

They lose interest in things they once loved like toys, old hobbies, and — as trends say — science, technology, engineering and math.

These so-called STEM fields are full of careers that are notoriously dominated by men.

But WABE’s Mary Claire Kelly introduces us to some girls who are breaking down those stereotypes, one circuit at a time. Mary Claire Kelly talks with the GENIUS Robotics Team.

High school senior Annika Garbers began working with robots when she was seven years old. She’s spending her Friday evening on Feb. 13 preparing for a robotics competition in the morning called FIRST Tech Challenge.

“I think the thing that I take away from it most is the ability to work with really awesome, smart people. It’s okay to say, like, this is what I want to do, I want to write code to make it work. And the people around you will be like, ‘Yeah okay!’” Garbers said.

Garbers is a member of GENIUS, Girls Exploring New Ideas Using Science.

She and her four teammates are huddled around the robot challenge space, which looks like a mini boxing ring. They’re all wearing blue tie-dyed T-shirts, and, as teammate Aiden Kadzierski points out, their robot is sporting blue glitter.

“Since we’re all girls we don’t have any boys telling us ‘Glitter, ehhhhh,’ so we can have glitter and we can have lights and all that stuff,” Kadzierski said.

GENIUS is backed by Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta, which recently got $10,000 from the Motorola Solutions Foundation for local robotics programming. Last year, GENIUS was the first all-girls team from Georgia to go to the world championship for robotics.

Teammate Amanda Pham says they sometimes get weird looks for being an all-girls team.

“Once we get onto the practice field and once we can actually show what we’re doing and that we’re trying to be up to par with the other teams in terms of succeeding, then everybody else just kind of accepts that we’re here and we’re doing exactly the same thing that they are,” Pham said.

Pham says she thinks GENIUS has a good chance against the other teams this year.

“Our robot this year’s name is Na’vi, after the character from Avatar. Her last name is Genie. Our robots have always had the last name Genie because Genie+us equals GENIUS, and that is our team.”

Na’vi looks a little like the robot WALL-E, except without the eyes and with different wheels. The GENIUS team members, who are all in high school, designed, built, programmed and wired her themselves. And while this isn’t “BattleBots” or anything, Na’vi has a challenge ahead of her. The challenge for robots this year is to pick balls up from the floor and lift them into tall tubes.

The girls has been working as a team for five years now. But since Annika Garbers is a senior, this will be her last year competing. 

Her mom, Debbie Garbers, watches the GENIUS girls prep their robot, and says she feels like tearing up.

“We have loved every minute of every competition of FIRST robotics. It’s more than just STEM, it’s creative thinking, it’s presentation skills, it’s problem solving…”

Eleven years ago, it was Debbie Garbers’ younger son who introduced the family to robots. Now, it’s her daughter Annika who’s applying to colleges with an interest in a STEM career.

“I’m planning to go into college for systems engineering, which is business and management and communications and working with people, and industrial engineering, which is the hard core stuff I like about robotics,” Annika said.

The next day, the GENIUS team would go on to win multiple awards. They and Na’vi will soon be going on to the Southern Regional competition in San Antonio, Texas.