‘We don’t bite’

Education / Featured Sliders / Lifestyle / Stories / March 17, 2020

Young women gain traction in technology, esports fields

Story by Madeleine Leroux
Photos by Claire Hassler and Liv Paggiarino

When Sarah Long first joined the robotics club at Helias Catholic High School, she knew there would not be anyone else like her there.

Helias Robotics Club member Sarah Long, center, laughs with teammates John Christianson, right, and Conner Schulte, left, as they start getting materials out to work on their robot after school Feb. 11 at Helias Catholic High School.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking when I first joined because I knew that there weren’t going to be any girls in there,” Sarah said.

But she quickly decided that wouldn’t stop her.

“Why don’t I just go for it because I know that the guys in there are probably more scared of me than I am of them,” she said with a laugh. “It was awesome. It was kind of nice being the first one to be there. … it’s not that bad hanging out with a group of guys.”

Though Sarah, 15, now a sophomore, enjoyed that first year as the only girl in robotics, she said she was very happy to see Gabriella Jacobs walk in this year.

“I was really grateful when Gabriella came in, ‘cause I was like, ‘Finally, I have someone else to relate to on a girl level,” Sarah said.

Sarah was always interested in technology; her father is an engineer and she’s enjoyed helping him with projects. When she heard about the robotics club at Helias, she said, joining was a “no-brainer.”

For Gabriella, the interest began at St. Martins Catholic School, where she was part of the LEGO robotics team. When she learned about the Helias program at an open house, she thought it would be fun to continue the activity.

“I’ve always been into computers and stuff,” Gabriella said, noting it was a great way for her to be involved at her new school.

Robotics club projects involve learning how to problem-solve, work as a team and support each other, which is exactly why Melissa Rockers, a physical science teacher, worked to start the program at Helias, after she previously started the one at St. Martins. Her son was on a LEGO League robotics team and, in going to competitions, she saw how the activity really lived up to its motto of “gracious professionalism.” She recalled one competition where a team’s robot simply did not function properly, but another team recognized it as being a software issue. That competing team then spent a good deal of time helping to solve the issue.

Helias Robotics Club member Gabriella Jacobs uses her laptop during a club meeting after school Feb. 11 at Helias Catholic High School. Jacobs is one of two girls in the club.

“It was just outstanding,” Rockers said. “These kids are just constantly solving problems. That’s life.”

It’s that problem-solving that has attracted many girls to the fields of robotics and computer science, and yet these are the very same fields where women are historically underrepresented. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, which collaborates with other organizations to encourage girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (otherwise known as STEM fields), women make up only 15 percent of the engineering workforce and only 26 percent of the workforce in computer and mathematical sciences.

Gabriella said even in elementary school there were few girls involved in robotics. In a group of about 16, she recalled there being only two or three girls involved.

It’s an issue that Kevin Keeney ran into when he decided to start a cyber club at Lighthouse Preparatory Academy. When Keeney first started the club, which incorporates IT lessons into activities such as disrupting Minecraft servers, his 13-year-old daughter, Cadence, was the only girl to show up.

Jessica Loughridge smiles as she watches her teammates play video games during Jefferson City High School esports practice after school Feb. 3 at Jefferson City High School. Loughridge said usually gender doesn’t matter on the esports team, and that everyone is able to bond because they’re all interested in the game.

“I went to some people at the school and said, ‘We’ve got to do better,’” Keeney said. “I started sales pitching to any young ladies in the school.”

He also told Cadence and 16-year-old Reagan King, the second girl to join the club, to tell their female friends about the group and encourage them to try it. Eventually, he wound up with five girls in the club, including Cadence and Reagan.

Cadence said she feels like many boys doubt girls can excel in things like computer programming and she had to work to convince some of her friends it was an activity they could be involved in.

“A lot of the girls doubt themselves … ‘cause they thought that they couldn’t do it,” Cadence said. “You don’t have to be discouraged by what other people think. If you start doing something that you love and you do what your passion is, you can be really happy.”

Veronica Worthen, a 17-year-old senior at Helias, said she never really thought about the gender issue in STEM fields. Her own interest in science stems from her mother, a science teacher herself, and Veronica plans to study chemistry in college. When she enrolled in an Advanced Placement computer science class, Veronica noticed that in an initial class of 30, there were only about four girls.

“It wasn’t really surprising to me,” she said.

The class has become something she loves to be a part of. Veronica said she loved the challenge it presented and is visibly proud as she describes the progress she’s made.

“I didn’t know any programming, really, and now I can write a whole program just from scratch, from nothing, I can do it,” Veronica said.

Veronica actually wrote a program to assist in chemistry applications. The program allows a user to put in all the variables for what’s called the conservation of heat equation, except for the one variable the user wants to solve for.

Jessica Loughridge holds a controller during Jefferson City High School esports practice after school on Feb. 3 at Jefferson City High School. Pokemon was one of the first video games Loughridge got into.

“The program takes all of those numbers and it multiplies them … and it gives you a correct answer,” Veronica said. “It’s so cool, it’s like ‘I made that.’”

That feeling of accomplishment is one Sarah and Gabriella can relate to in robotics. They both enjoy the problem solving that comes with building a robot to perform a specific task, which is what the robotics club does when it heads to tournaments. This year’s challenge is to build a robot that can pick up blocks and stack them like a skyscraper, Sarah said. It requires collaboration from everyone in the club.

“Being able to create something that you didn’t think that you would normally be able to make and then other people adding ideas to it, and all of a sudden you have a robot,” Sarah said.

It’s not only STEM fields where women are underrepresented. In the growing field of esports, most competitive teams have one thing in common — they’re made up of mostly males. Esports is essentially competitive video gaming. The field has grown to the point where many colleges, including the University of Missouri and Columbia College, have formed esports teams and offer scholarships to competitive players.

Jessica Loughridge and Ali Otto are two of the few girls involved with Jefferson City High School’s esports club. Both trace their love of video games back to early childhood. For Ali, a 17-year-old junior, it started with Pokémon.

One of the Helias Robotics Club’s robots sits in a practice arena in the center of the club’s classroom after school Feb. 11. In one part of competition, the robot will have to perform certain, coded tasks on its own; in another part of the competition, the students who built it will control it and have it perform a set of additional tasks.

“I had a bunch of friends that liked the trading card game, so I got into the card game first,” Ali said. When she discovered the video game version, she quickly got her first GameBoy and her gaming interest began to grow. “I get to catch little pocket monsters.”

Pokémon was also one of Jessica’s first games. She first became interested in video games because her brother was and, as she put it, “I liked my brother more than I liked my sister.”

“When he got Pokémon, I got Pokémon,” Jessica said.

From there, she began to explore the worlds in games like Minecraft, Skyrim and Fallout — pretty much any game made by Bethesda Game Studios, a company known for its open world role-playing games.

“I love big open world games where you can role play as a character,” Jessica said, noting that she loves the freedom that format offers.

Many female gamers have reported increased discrimination and threats for years, leading to the 2013 #GamerGate, a harassment campaign that centered on those issues in video game culture. Jessica and Ali said neither of them have ever really faced those issues, a sign of the growing shift in the gender demographics of esports.

For Jessica, she always felt as if she was seen as “one of the boys,” so it wasn’t much of an issue.

“If you find a game and you find friends that also like that game, you can talk and talk and talk and it doesn’t even matter that it’s a guy and a girl,” Jessica said.

She said the only time she feels gender comes into play is when attraction is involved.

“Sometimes it matters because, you know, they’re nerds,” Jessica said, laughing. “They don’t get a lot of attention from the opposite gender.”

But mostly, the community she’s found, like so many others, has been supportive. For Reagan King, the 16-year-old cyber club member, that support has created a great environment for her to continue learning new skills, such as cryptography.

“We’re all supportive of each other,” Reagan said.

For girls wondering if they can take on and succeed in a STEM field, many of these young women had the same advice — just give it a try. After all, there’s no harm in that.

“We don’t bite,” Sarah said.

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Molly Morris

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