Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, home of the Air Force Reserve’s 916th Air Refueling Wing, stepped up to help encourage a group of young girls with an interest in science, technology, engineering and math.
Lt. Col. Shannon Mann, an individual mobilization augmentee assigned to the Department of Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland, and former public affairs officer for the 916th ARW, is the lead coach for the Techno Tigresses – an all-girl FIRST Lego League robotics team based in Clayton.
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. The organization teamed up with the Lego Corp. in 1999 to establish a robotics competition to challenge students ages 9-14.
Students begin each season Aug. 1 with a global challenge designed by FIRST in which they must work together as a team to identify and research real-world problems and develop innovative solutions. Following the project portion of the competition, they must build and code robots to meet mission challenges on a board roughly the size of a large dining room table. Students showcase their project, solution, robot design and strategy to community leaders and panels of judges, all the while ensuring they demonstrate the core values of discovery, innovation, impact, inclusion, teamwork and fun.
Currently, more than 500 FIRST robotics teams are sponsored by the Department of Defense. While the Techno Tigresses aren’t directly sponsored by the DoD, Mann recently took the team, comprised of five middle-school students from three different schools, to Seymour Johnson to show them what STEM professions exist in the Air Force and what education it takes to get those jobs.
“I knew girls who were interested in robotics, but when they joined teams they were the only girls on the teams and the building and coding tasks were dominated by the boys,” Mann said. “That turned them off. I don’t know anything about robots, but I know about wanting to succeed in a field where you’re outnumbered. Even after 30 years of service, the military is still predominantly male. I thought I could open doors for them to see the possibilities of their future in STEM.
“I’m not sure how many girls dream of being a fighter pilot or working with explosive ordnances. These aren’t jobs usually discussed in middle school career electives. But these jobs are led by some of the bravest and smartest people on the planet who have made a commitment to serve. Of course I want to expose my kids, and every other kid, to that kind of future. If we don’t start now, when they’re 10 to 12, then by the time they are 18, it may be too late.”
Capt. Meghan Booze, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot with the active-duty 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson, met with the girls and talked about her background and what led her to flying.
“When I was a teenager I flew with my grandfather,” Booze said. “He had his private pilot’s license. I loved it. I knew right then I wanted to fly.”
An Air Force Academy graduate, Booze encouraged the girls to consider attending one of the service academies and encouraged them to continuously seek out education opportunities. In addition to being a combat aviation pilot, she is currently attending Duke University to earn her master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
As the team stood under the wing of an F-15E, they learned being a woman in the military isn’t always easy.
“There are only about .08% of us flying combat aircraft in the Air Force today,” Booze said. “Female mentors aren’t always easy to find, but that’s what happens when you’re breaking new ground.”
Next, the team spent an hour with active-duty and Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 4th FW and 916th ARW Explosive Ordnance Disposal flights. The Airmen and the Techno Tigresses bonded over their mutual admiration for all things robotic.
Master Sgt. David Ewbanks, noncommissioned officer in charge of the 916th EOD flight, helped arrange the tour and worked with his counterparts to set up three different obstacle courses in which the team got to operate robots to achieve mission goals.
“I was impressed with the level of interest they displayed in the robotic-controlled devices,” Ewbanks said. “This type of experience is important for the benefit of motivating girls to seek out higher learning and advanced skills as a profession. I can only believe this will help guide them in certain life choices needed to make eventual employment with robotics a reality.”
The team was impressed with the capabilities of the EOD robots that can cost up to several hundred thousand dollars each. In comparison, the Tigresses will build, code and operate an EV3 Mindstorm robot that costs roughly $800.
“I don’t want to break it,” Sydney Matisoff, a founding member of the Techno Tigresses, said as she followed her teammates around before finally being tempted to take over the controls of the micro robot herself. “It is so cool that this robot can flip itself over!”
The last stop of the day landed the team in the office of Col. Amanda Sheets, the first woman to command the 916th ARW Maintenance Group. Sheets talked to the girls about leadership and the obstacles she faced in a career field where women were under-represented.
Sheets told the group as a young lieutenant she was always placed at the table with older male counterparts who had worked in the career field a long time. She said at first it was intimidating, but she knew she had to find a way to lead them.
“They weren’t mean, but they treated me like a kid sister. I had to stand up for myself,” she said.
She told the girls they always had to believe in themselves and their abilities. Sheets and the team also talked about the Air Force core values and how many of the FIRST Lego League core values – like innovation and teamwork – are used in the military every day.
“I really liked her a lot,” said Bhakti Patel, a seventh grader on the team. “She talked about being a leader, and not a boss. I could put myself in her shoes because we often have to prove ourselves good enough. I really do love these women for showing they really do care about us.”
As the tour wrapped up, the Techno Tigresses walked away knowing more about how STEM ties directly into the nation’s defense, how it helps the military support communities and how it doesn’t matter what your gender is. … these jobs are open to all. #ReserveResilient #ReserveReform