The Fantastic Six Illuminate the World of Robotics in Silicon Valley
Text and Photos by Verónica Meza, Alianza News
PALO ALTO, CA. At only thirteen and fourteen years old, six students of Hispanic origin have delved into the sciences and the world of robotics, building robots, «Wall-e» and «Eve,» who have captured attention in various competitions in the Bay Area.
Alianza Metropolitan News had the opportunity to follow up on a series of interviews with the teacher who leads this VEX Robotics project and her middle school students from The Girls’ Middle School, GMS, for its acronym in English.
Alice Chang, originally from Taiwan, told us that she came to the United States to start her secondary education. She did not know how to speak English and had to learn the language like many immigrants in this country. Alice graduated with a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Electrical Engineering.
She also studied Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. In addition to specializing in psychology, Alice Chang teaches 6th-grade math at GMS, where she is in charge of the VEX Robotics program. The Girls’ Middle School students are from different cultural backgrounds, such as American, Asian, Indian, and of European origin, among others. However, Alice decided to give the Hispanic students who were awarded the Bennett Scholars scholarship, which covers the academic costs of these students, the opportunity to learn and live this robotic experience for three years at GMS.
«I believe the Latino immigrant community is similar to the Asian community. We come from a lower-middle-class socioeconomic level, have the same financial difficulties, and must adapt to this culture and learn English as new immigrants. Asian culture demands that children make the most of their education. I don’t know exactly what Latino families think. Still, I think this experience of building robots in this group of Latino students will awaken or affirm a taste for Science. I see few Latinos in technology working in Silicon Valley who have leadership jobs. You also see few women in these tech positions,» said Chang.
With outstanding commitment, Alice has led six students of Latino origin to enter the world of computing; by building two robots that have entered multiple competitions at various schools and technology campuses in the Bay Area. Before creating the famous robots Wall-e» and «Eve,» the «Fantastic Six» group: Andrea Maldonado, Diana González-Morales, Giselle Ochoa, Jennifer Castro, Melany Ibarra, and Daphne Martínez, created their book on digital engineering, in which, as a diary, they wrote the design process of their robots. They started with the mission of the work team; they created their own rules of the game with a progress score, and the group continued with the expectation of the robot, the design, and the way of assembling it. Later the «Fantastic Six» began the assembly that required several tests. According to the team’s reflection and point of view, adjustments were needed for the robot to work. In addition, they added wheels that could allow their robots to be transported from one place to another. And the team continued with the most exciting part, the programming of the brains and the electrical part that would give life to these robotic characters. After multiple tests, assemblies and duplicates, they finished «Eve,» the precious robot.
«With the support of Alice, we took an introductory robotics workshop at Google. From there, we started. We built «Wall-e» with used metals and little pieces. I took care of the coding of the robot. It means dividing the controls and where it will move, if it is up, down, in a circle, etc. It consists of using examples of the coding process. There is no manual. Everything is done on the computer. Then we take out the memory, put it in the robot, and test the speed. We put the brain in the computer again and make the adjustments. We passed the code for «Wall-e» to «Eve,» the new robot, commented the 7th-grade student, Diana González-Morales.
Also, Melany Ibarra, an 8th-grade student, told us, «I joined two weeks after the project started, but I integrated quickly. I helped build with two other classmates, «Eve.» I enjoy teamwork. I have seen how my work and effort have helped this project. Now I like robotics, and I want to study engineering and business at the university.»
On the other hand, Andrea Maldonado is also an 8th-grade student and mentioned, «We watched several videos that showed how a robot is built to start this project. We take a class one day a week and go from there. In this process, I have learned to solve problems. At first, we were very stressed because the robot was not working, and we had to correct everything many times until it worked. I want to study computer science.»
We can appreciate how involving students in the world of robotics favors teamwork and the development of cognitive skills. For example, they learn from mistakes and discover alternatives for designing new routes that will lead them to reach a brilliant goal when they work consistently.
We know that robots are becoming more intelligent and capable of performing activities with precision and speed. The robot’s behavior or mobility can be programmed and analyzed to improve its performance. And precisely, robots are designed to help humans because they are built with human intelligence. And that should be the purpose of continuing to create robots or artificial intelligence; support human functions without replacing the compassion, care, and love that a living being can give.
By interviewing each participant in the robotics group at GMS, we could perceive the value that each of the students places on teamwork. And how six brains together can divide the aspects that will make the mechanical and electrical body of their robots work well. But we all know that every success story is not made alone. Behind it is the time, effort, and passion for Science and robotics, of teacher Alice Chang and mentor Heather Baker, who made it possible for the «Fantastic Six» to achieve their goal. Likewise, the teachers who accompanied these students by supervising the robotics classes after school were María Pérez, Frances Kao, Kylie Jue, and Eva Waterman.
As a team, we built «Walle-e» and «Eve» to take them to competition. We are not sad if we don’t win because we learn from our mistakes. I want to be a robotics engineer or a coder. I want to design robots that take care of people, like nurses, to have a better world,» said student Diana González-Morales.
«I recommend to Latino students who want to study robotics to keep going and not give up. Unfortunately, in this area, the doors for Latinos are not open because no Latino adults are dedicated to robotics. It is up to this new generation of students to initiate and open these doors in the technology field, which have remained closed to all Latinos,» stressed teacher Alice Chang.
We applaud the dedication that the group of «The Fantastic Six» have had to code, design, and build their robots, «Walle-e» and «Eve .» May the competitions, success, and opportunities to improve and enter the world of robotics follow. And we conclude this note with a comment from Woodie Flowers (1943-2019), a mechanical engineering professor at MIT. Also, he co-created the first robotics competition for young people, «Compete for the good, not to destroy each other; but for the sake of making both competitors better and better as a result of the competition.»
For 25 years The Girls' Middle School has educated girls at a crucial time in life. We create an inclusive environment where academic growth is nourished. A GMS girl discovers her strengths and expresses her voice while respecting the contributions of others.