Julia Powers poses infront of the competition arena of the State Frinals match at Saginaw Valley State University. Team 5509 was part of the Blue Alliance. The team came in second in their division, and will travel to the Worlds competition starting April 24. Photo: Maureen Alof
Senior Julia Powers has always liked robots, but when she saw Team 5509’s robot at freshman orientation, she knew she had to join the robotics team. Little did she know that she would almost singlehandedly wire the team’s robot two years in a row.
“I thought that the robot was the coolest things on planet Earth and I wanted to know how I could be a part of that,” Powers said. “I wanted to build a robot. It seemed like the most enticing thing to me.”
When Powers started, she didn’t know anything about robotics. She said that she felt bad for constantly asking questions about what people were doing to the robot, but she also said that being nosy was somewhat necessary to learn the craft. When people get into the zone they tend not to pay attention to the younger members of the team. Powers said that Abbey Lund, a senior when Powers was a freshman, took her under her wing and that it is how she found her role as one of the team’s electricians. Powers said that if it hadn’t been for Lunds mentorship, she likely would have not been as successful as an electrician.
Powers said the electrical aspect of building the robot is as all about getting the robot to run. Powers took up a big role in completing the robot her sophomore and junior year, contributing almost 120 hours of work during the season, almost all on electrical wiring. This year Powers has contributed about 40 hours, which while below Powers’ own average, is the average contribution of most team members.
Powers expressed sincere and positive feelings for the robotics team, calling her decision to participate one of the most important decisions of her high school career. However, not all of of her experiences have been positive. She has experienced some sexism on the team.
“I remember a time when a guy made a joke of ‘you should engineer me a sandwich,’” Powers said. “I also remember at a worlds competition, I had two different men I didn’t know ask for my phone number or offer to buy me a pop. I thought to myself ‘I’m here for robotics, I’m not here to date anyone.’ It was well intentioned, but it just made me uncomfortable.”
Powers expressed frustration with more incidents as well. She said there have been times where she has given an idea to solve a problem and that solution was not taken seriously, but when the same idea was later shared by a male member of the team, it was taken into account.
“It’s just the small, constant things,” Powers said, “the microaggressions, that really wear you down.”
Team supervisor and Midland High teacher Ben Younkin shared some thoughts on sexism on the team. “I don’t think anything’s perfect,” Younkin said, “and it kind of depends on our leadership and how we grow each year. I think that in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] in particular, we need to be focused on making sure that we reach a representative population.”
Both Younkin and Powers expressed interest in expanding the female membership on the team, one day hoping to reach a 50/50 ratio of boys to girls on the team. Younkin also said that Powers is a great role model for young women in STEM.
“She has a super optimistic, cheery attitude even when things get hard or things break or don’t work the way we want. Some people get upset, but Julia has done a great job being positive and it has spread to other people now.”
Powers’ father, Brian Powers, has been extremely supportive of Julia’s participation on the team. He said it was always easy to support her because her passion for the team was real, amd it was clear that she wanted to be all in.
“She’s not one to just read about it, she actually wants to roll up the sleeves and work on things” Brian said. “So anytime that we have a project at home that would also include doing that kind of thing she’s right on top of it. Electronics, circuitry, and wiring are really her thing.” Brian says he knows that Julia will be successful because of how she has excelled in robotics.
Julia said that being on the robotics team is what made her want to be an electrical engineer, more specifically, work on ways to help the handicapped. She plans to attend either Michigan State or Michigan Tech next year to continue her education. She knows that the problems she has faced with sexism, especially in STEM do not go away, but she is ready for the challenge.