Posted on 3/11/2015

ThunderChickens, FIRST Robotics and creating a supportive, rewarding environment for young girls

Kelly Kozlowski

I first met the ThunderChickens, of the Utica Community Schools district, when I was assigned to follow them around for a season to help ghostwrite for a book about FIRST Robotics. They were then, and continue to be, a powerhouse team of 40-50 high school students who compete annually at the international level. 

The experience was educational for me, and as I prepared to leave them at the end of my assignment, I was surprised to learn that they wanted to keep me … as a mentor. I was surprised because my formal science education ended with a high school chemistry class, and my area of expertise was communication, not STEM. But they insisted that STEM students need to learn communication skills, so I would, indeed, serve a purpose.

In the years since, there have been many defining moments that have taught me things about young people, education, determination and success that you will never read in a book. 

One of the most heartbreaking lessons came in the form of a quiet sentence from one of my favorite young women on the team.

“No one on that stage looks like me.”

My heart sank when she said it. We were sitting at the FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC) world championship last year, and she was disappointed because she didn’t see anyone of her ethnicity and gender onstage. 

There were plenty of engineers giving remarks from the podium. Plenty of successful people who, in many cases, grew into that success from an early interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – just like she had. There were plenty of people for her to admire.

But the thing she noticed right away was that she didn’t quite see herself in any of them.

As one of the team’s mentors, I have spent the past 5 years trying to show students – especially young women – that there are endless opportunities for them. I see those opportunities every day through my work at Automation Alley. I have an inside look at so much of the tech economy landscape in Southeast Michigan, and it’s so promising. I want these girls to know that.

What we in the business community need to recognize – what I have learned from my students – is that as girls graduate and go to college and start looking for jobs, they will undoubtedly also be looking for role models. They will need to know that Indian women can run tech companies, that women with disabilities can invent things that change the world, and that black women can be among the greatest programmers in the field. They will need to see that people just like them walked the path first – not because it makes it easier for them, but because they sometimes need to be shown that a path is possible at all.

We should absolutely make an effort in the business community to create an environment that is more supportive of and rewarding to female talent. But let us not forget that today’s young women have an even higher standard than gender equality. They are growing up in a world that exposes them to more cultural diversity than the generations before them knew. 

And they expect that same diversity in the workplace. 

My hope is that the STEM career landscape will continue to evolve so that these girls find exactly what they’re looking for … and that ThunderChickens in future years will start to see themselves in the fields they are passionate about. 

About the Author

Kelly Kozlowski | Automation Alley

Kelly Kozlowski is senior director of Automation Alley and communications mentor for the ThunderChickens robotics team of Utica Community Schools. When she’s not at the office or molding the next generation of journalists and PR professionals, she enjoys reading the newspaper (yes, the paper newspaper) at her neighborhood pancake joint.


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