A Mesa women’s autonomous underwater vehicle team is one of only two all-female groups competing this summer in RoboSub, an international robotics competition.
Desert Women in Autonomous Vehicle Engineering, or Desert WAVE was founded in fall 2018. The student organization consists of 15 members at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus in east Mesa.
This is the first year the team is competing in the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International RoboSub competition, held annually in San Diego for groups from middle school to college undergraduate and graduate level to compete for $20,000 in prizes.
“We want the male-dominated teams to stop thinking of us as a female team. So how do you do that? You have to become a threat,” said Faridodin “Fredi” Lajvardi, Desert WAVE’s mentor from the Si Se Puede Foundation in Chandler, one of their sponsors.
Only 21 percent of engineering and computer science bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women, and only 13 percent of the engineering workforce is made up of women, according to the Society of Women Engineers.
“The question is why? Do girls realize that they’re going to be in a class of all males, and they decide they don’t wanna do it? Do they think they can’t do it? I mean what is it that makes them do that? My theory is that there is no support system,” said Lajvardi.
Lajvardi worked in the public-school system for 30 years before retiring. In 2004, his robotics team at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix won a national underwater robot competition, beating the revered Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After 30 years, Lajvardi said he asked himself where there was an area with a need for his experience and skills, so he began looking at college programs. He said he noticed that the number of women in engineering drops off dramatically in college compared to high school.
For many of the women in DesertWAVE, going into the engineering field was initially a difficult decision.
“I began as a mechanical engineer a couple years ago and it’s totally different. I see more women than I did before for sure,” said Crystal Torres, an ASU freshman who is majoring in mechanical engineering systems.
“This was like 8 years ago, there was probably me and one other girl. I actually got discouraged from pursuing an engineering degree because it was overwhelming and there was only one other girl,” she said.
Paulina Garibay Jaquez – a freshman majoring in robotics engineering with a secondary focus in autonomous vehicles – belonged to her high school robotics club and knew she wanted to combine her passions for automotive engineering and robotics.
“I feel like being on this team, being all women, that fear is taken away, because we’re all women and we get along really well,” she said.
The team meets throughout the week, working on electrical, programming and 3D printing for the robot even though conflicting schedules make it difficult to gather together.
Desert WAVE’s robot, named Phoenix, is being programmed to maneuver through an obstacle course in which it will need to “see, hear, and think on its own,” said Andrea Schoonover, a junior majoring in software engineering.
The team’s robot is equipped with two cameras, and it uses passive and active acoustics in order to ping its location off of its surroundings and navigate the course.
The obstacle course is located in a testing pool at the San Diego Naval Base. Each robot will need to be programmed to navigate the course as well as accomplish tasks, such as hitting a target with a soft torpedo.
“There are different difficulty levels, so you want to attempt the ones that you know for sure you can get points on,” said Schoonover.
Although WAVE members are excited to compete this summer, Lajvardi said they are frustrated by a lack of funding from outside corporations.
“A lot of people are interested in funding a weekend coding for women, thinking that’s going to change their life goals, and then they can pat themselves on the back for helping women in STEM,” said Lajvardi. “So here we are, women doing STEM, where’s the sponsors? Where’s all the people who want to change the world?”
Desert WAVE will be competing against 67 other teams.
“I can’t wait to see peoples’ perceptions change,” said Lajvardi.