‘Robot women’ of U of M reach out to girls, students of color


When Monica Anderson and fellow University of Minnesota students Kelly Cannon and Katie Panciera go shopping, they are reluctant to tell the salespeople what they major in. The three are studying for their doctoral degrees in the university’s Computer Science and Engineering Department’s Center for Distributed Robotics. In short, they study robots.

“We get that look when we tell them we study robots,” said Anderson.

What Anderson, Cannon and Panciera study is rare for anyone, men or women, but especially for women. Therefore, admission into the program is highly competitive.

According to Center Director Nikos Papanikolopoulos, University of Minnesota, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pennsylvania, MIT, University of California at Berkley, Stanford University, Purdue University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Massachusetts are the only universities to offer graduate degree programs in robotics.

Anderson graduated from Chicago State University with a computer science degree, moved to the Twin Cities and worked for 12 years as a software engineer and web page designer with Cargill, Target and Northwest Airlines. Four years ago, she decided to go back to school to earn a doctoral degree so she can become a professor.

“In industry, you don’t get rewarded for doing new things. You get rewarded for doing the same things,” Anderson said. “In college, you get rewarded for exploring new ideas and doing new things.”

Anderson chose the robotic program at the U of M because she can write software and also build hardware. The Center for Distributed Robotics is at the forefront of research in robotics. With nearly 100 robots in the lab, with varying sizes, locomotion, computational and sensing capabilities, there are platforms for a variety of research and real world applications.

Anderson, Cannon and Panciera are studying and designing software for intelligent robots that can do surveillance work for humans.

“The idea is to keep people out of danger and save lives,” Anderson explained. “They can be used to search for people in natural disasters, in collapsed buildings, and to search for bombs.”

In the 10 years of its existence, the robotic center has conducted groundbreaking research that has resulted in the production of robots that have improved safety for thousands of firefighters, police offers and soldiers. Some of the robots have been used by U.S. troops in Iraq.

Anderson is one of five women among the 20 graduate students in the robotic program. That’s a very high percentage compared to the overall female enrollment in science and engineering schools. Anderson feels that women can offer different perspectives to the field of engineering and science research.

“We tend to approach things and try to solve problems somewhat differently,” Anderson said. “I think that’s good because we need a variety of ways of looking at things, and that requires a variety of people. I think women can contribute to that, the same with minorities who come from different backgrounds.”

Anderson, Cannon and Panciera are doing something extra to help more women and minorities into science and technology.

Cannon ran a Minnesota Technology Day Camp for 15 middle school students this past summer. For five days, Cannon, Anderson, Panciera and other U of M students gave these students an insight into the world of robotics. To make sure they could keep the kids’ attention and enthusiasm, the U graduate students designed fun activities such as building Palm Pilot robot kits, designing dance routines for robots and a Robot Olympics through which they learned computer science theories and techniques.

Anderson is involved in an after school program in which she coaches 15 high school students in website development. At the end of the spring semester, she will take the students to Los Angeles for a national competition.

Anderson, Cannon and Panciera are also ambassadors for the U of M and their department. They visit schools, senior citizen centers and host students who tour the U. On a recent visit by 30 students from the Minneapolis Public School’s High Tech Girls Society, Anderson, Cannon and Panciera encouraged them to pursue science if that’s what they love. The three graduate students also stressed that they are not super students, but ordinary people who happen to be studying computer science and robotics.

“I graduated from high school with a 3.3 GPA,” Anderson said to the girls. “You don’t have to be a nerd or super smart. You just have to work hard. You can be good at math and still be social and fun.”

“Lots of girls think people studying computer science are antisocial, quiet and nerdy,” Cannon said. “I want to show them that we are nice, normal people who do normal things.”

Like going shopping with girlfriends.