Shattering Myths That Women Can't Be Leaders in Science

Released: 8-Jun-2005 8:00 AM EDT
Source Newsroom: Spelman College
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Newswise — Spelman College students are defying the myth that women are not equipped to be leaders in the sciences. Countless hours of computer programming in between hitting the books have paid off for these students, who have earned the College a coveted spot in an international competition. From July 13-19, 2005, the all-female team will be in Osaka, Japan, for RoboCup 2005, where they will compete against 23 other academic institutions from around the world that have also programmed Sony AIBO robot dogs. The Coca-Cola Company is sponsoring the team to ensure they have the resources needed to successfully compete in this prestigious competition.

The Japan competition is not the first major match the students have experienced. The team also participated for the first time in the third annual RoboCup U.S. Open on the campus of Georgia Tech, May 7-10, 2005. Spelman was one of eight U.S. schools competing in the tournament's four-legged league, which uses Sony AIBO robot dogs. In Japan, Spelman will be only one of five U.S. teams competing. The others included are Georgia Tech, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas at Austin, and Carnegie Mellon University. The College is also the only undergraduate institution, the only historically Black college or university and the only all-women's institution to qualify for Japan. "This is a great accomplishment for [Spelman] students," said faculty adviser Andrew Williams, Ph.D.

In preparation for both RoboCup tournaments, students Aryen Moore-Alston, Brandy Kinlaw, Ebony Smith, Karina Liles, Ebony O'Neal and Shinese Noble, along with Professor Williams, have written complex algorithms or computer software programs " normally created by graduate level students " that allow sophisticated Sony AIBO ERS-7 robot dogs to not only play soccer using fundamental motions like kicking, passing and blocking, but to also make decisions on game strategy, all without the use of a remote control. The result: four Sony AIBOs programmed to play a competitive game of soccer against another Sony AIBO team " quite a feat for a group of Spelman computer science majors who have researched and studied robot control systems for less than a year.

In Osaka, Japan, the Spelman College RoboCup Soccer Team will go up against 23 other academic institutions from around the world that have also programmed Sony AIBO robot dogs. For the tournament in Japan, Spelman earned a spot by submitting a technical application, which included video footage that demonstrated the team's research and technical approach.

By outward appearances, the tournaments may look like fun, especially with a group of cute robot dogs as the center of attention, but the team of researchers and students involved in RoboCup and other similar tournaments, have a serious and far-reaching goal in mind: to eventually create robots that will autonomously assist humans with simple and complex tasks.

Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., and the Spelman community are proud of the SpelBots, the name for the Spelman team. "The opportunity for six young Black women to lead a robotics team in international competition is so fantastic, and such a great testament to what is possible when the expectations are high," said Dr. Tatum. "It speaks to the continued importance of an institution like Spelman. We still need environments where those who have been historically left out are expected to succeed without the barriers often associated with gender or race, particularly in science and technology."

The Coca-Cola Company is supporting the team with a $50,000 sponsorship, and NASA also is a team sponsor. "The Coca-Cola Company continually seeks innovative programs to help knowledge-hungry students make their dreams a reality, and SpelBots was a wonderful opportunity for us to demonstrate our belief in a quality education," said Ingrid Saunders Jones, senior vice president, External Affairs, The Coca-Cola Company, and chair of The Coca-Cola Foundation. "We congratulate all of the students who have been working so hard, and thank President Tatum for her leadership and her cultivation of this program."

The program cam e to fruition when Williams brought the idea of competing in the RoboCup tournaments to Spelman last summer when he joined the faculty as an assistant professor in the computer and information sciences department. Williams came to Spelman from the University of Iowa, where he specialized in artificial intelligence for robots and bioinformatics and where he was already doing research work with Sony AIBOs and Tekkotsu, a robot-programming framework created by Carnegie Mellon University. And because one team member, Moore-Alston, was corresponding with Williams prior to his arrival to the College due to her interest in artificial intelligence, it didn't take long for him to recruit her and other students for the SpelBots team.

Smith, a junior, who enrolled in one of Williams' fall semester classes, recalls that she was instantly taken with his vision to start a team that would compete in an international robot-soccer tournament. Smith says that before she became involved with SpelBots, writing computer code was one-dimensional. "Most of programs I wrote would just have a written output," she said. "But with the [robot] you can see your work as it progresses, and I think that is important for computer-science majors at Spelman. This type of cutting-edge work helps to draw students into the computer-science field."

"I am hoping SpelBots will continue year after year, and eventually we'll start to beat schools like Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech in the RoboCup," said Williams. "Spelman students are bright enough to do that. In the short term, with SpelBots we want to provide role models for other young ladies, and encourage them to go to graduate school. We want to show them computer science and engineering can be fun, and they can do it because they are just as talented, gifted and smart."

Adds Kinlaw, a senior planning to go on to graduate school, "I want younger Black women to look at the SpelBots team, gain an interest in technology, and increase their knowledge of computer science because they see exciting opportunities to excel in these areas."

Founded in 1881, Spelman College is the only historically Black college in the nation to be included among U.S. News and World Report's Top 75 "Best Liberal Arts Colleges " Bachelor's," 2005. This private, historically Black college for women boasts outstanding alumnae such as Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman; former Foreign Service Director General, Ruth Davis; authors Tina McElroy Ansa and Pearl Cleage; and actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson. More than 81 percent of the full-time faculty holds Ph.D.s or other terminal degrees and the student-faculty ratio is 12:1. The students number 2,121 and represent 41 states and 15 foreign countries.


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