Robots are the Future, and These Detroit Girls Will Be Building Them
An all-girls robotics team is opening doors for women in STEM
Zwena Gray, programmer for the Mercy Midnight Storm
For members of the Mercy Midnight Storm, it’s like they won the Rookie All-Star title yesterday. Sixteen-year-old Brianna Bryant is so excited to talk about it, in fact, she pulls out her phone to show a video from last year’s states.
At first, the girls are casually listening to the judges, like Olympic figure skaters waiting on their results. But as the announcer slowly builds up to revealing the winning team, smiles start to spread across their faces. Finally he drops the biggest hint, mentioning how the team has taken robotics “by storm” — a cheesy reference to their team name. And from there, the girls lose it.
The team is one of the newer programs from the Mercy Education Project, a 25-year-old nonprofit founded by the Sisters of Mercy that offers low-income women and girls free educational opportunities. They host everything from after-school tutoring to GED prep programs for women.
The robotics team, which is now preparing for its third season, adds opportunities for the students to develop expertise in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — which currently skew toward men.
Take 15-year-old Zwena Gray, for example. Because she is a homeschooled student in Detroit, she didn’t have the option of joining a school’s team.
“So I emailed about 30 teams, like, ‘Do you guys need people? Are you guys recruiting? How can I get in?’ And literally only, like, two people replied and this is one of the teams that did,” Zwena says.
She is now one of 13 team members, and each contributes a different skill. Zwena’s is programming. Each season of competition begins with teams from the region getting a new task. Last season, for example, it was building a robot that could collect objects, do a rope climb, and run autonomously for 15 seconds. The teams only have six weeks to complete everything before the first competition — from designing and building the robot to writing the software that allows the team to run it by remote control.
Some of the biggest opportunities for learning come when things don’t go according to plan. For example, at a competition last season, Zwena says they ran into major problems with their robot’s autonomous function.
“We had tested it, like, three times, and it worked on the test field,” she says. “And they say, ‘ready, set, go’ and the robot does nothing.”
And at their second competition, they found out robotics can be a contact sport: Storm 2.0 got hit so hard by another robot that the battery went flying out and landed two feet away. They got disqualified from that round and had to make quick repairs before the next.
“What really surprises me about this team is that we’ve had some really bad days,” says lead team mentor Keysha Camps. “We’ve had a day full of parts breaking, we are in, like, last place; and always, at the end of the day, we have a little session where we just talk about what went wrong. Every single time we’ve done that, they’ve come back so strong.”
The girls on the team are now like “a whole bunch of sisters,” Zwena says. They all have nicknames for each other. And Zwena knows she can call a teammate for emergency help with her math homework — even if it’s 11:30 at night. They also volunteer together: They recently spent a Saturday morning engineering a water collection system at a community garden in southwest Detroit.
Even though the robotics program is fairly new, the team is already opening doors for young women interested in STEM. Last year’s captain, Ashley Jones, is now at the University of Michigan with a full scholarship studying biomedical engineering. And Nada Alhamdi, who stuck around to serve as a team mentor this year, is now majoring in software engineering at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
“Originally a lot of the girls, they wouldn’t think even for a second to do engineering,” Alhamdi says. “But a lot of the girls want to do STEM- related fields. It just shows you how this team impacts them.”
More Than Robots
The robotics team is one of the flashy new programs from the Mercy Education Project, but the nonprofit organization has actually been making a difference in Detroit for a quarter century. Every year, nearly 300 women and girls from diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds make their way through MEP’s broad slate of education programs. But the group couldn’t do it without the help of more than 120 volunteers who donate 10,000 collective hours annually. You can learn more about giving your time — or making a financial contribution — at mercyed.net.