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Christine Chang-Gillespie

'Success to me looks like a functioning robot'

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Christine Chang-Gillespie decided she wanted to be an engineer after watching the 1995 film Apollo 13.

"You know the part where they dump all the stuff on the table, and they're trying to fix the air filter? They were trying to solve a problem and I thought, 'That's what I want to do, and I want to do it at NASA,'" she said.

Women are historically underrepresented in technology, science and engineering-related disciplines. According to the National Science Foundation, 19.2 percent of engineering, 18.2 percent of computer science and 19.1 percent of physics bachelor's degrees were awarded to women in 2012. Chang-Gillespie bucked the trend, receiving a bachelor's degree in engineering from Cornell University in 2004, working for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and at Boeing in Seattle.

After moving to Idaho, she received a master's degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Now, Chang-Gillespie is a project manager at Boise State University, recruiting girls in grades 9-12 and mentors from across the Treasure Valley for an all-women robotics team competing in Boise's debut at the regional FIRST Robotics Competition tournament in April.

Between now and the competition, her team will learn to design, build and program a robot that will square off against other 'bots from around the country.

You became interested in engineering and involved with FIRST Robotics at around the same time.

I decided I wanted to become a mechanical engineer and found out my school had a robotics team. I joined the robotics team to find out if it was actually something that I wanted to do, and not just see in a movie. That was my introduction to FIRST Robotics.

What did you do for NASA?

I was trained to be a flight controller at mission control. I also did pyro testing on the space shuttle and when I worked there full-time I moved on to a group that was building a device to extract oxygen from lunar soil.

Why did you leave?

Even people who love their jobs have to love where they live. I wanted to get into education in some way so I explored how I wanted to do that. I ended up here in Boise and took an undergrad class in the College of Education, and ended up in the Master of Science STEM Education program, doing my thesis on FIRST Robotics.

What did you learn from your thesis and how are you applying it to a FIRST Robotics team?

I was curious what the relationship was between the students on the [FIRST Robotics] team and what they ended up doing in college and their careers. There was a strong correlation between the role they played [on the team] and what they ended up doing later on. One of the things that struck me afterward was the strong need for more female mentors so girls felt more empowered to take on more engineering roles on the team, and hopefully end up in engineering and STEM-related careers. One of the projects I work on is starting an all-girls FIRST Robotics team that is recruiting students from all over the Treasure Valley. They're largely mentored by females and we're actively recruiting girls. We have 12 girls currently on our roster and we're recruiting more. I'd like to have at least 20 people on the team.

Why is yours an all-women team?

One answer is because my thesis said so, but the dean of the College of Engineering, Dr. Amy Moll, is constantly trying to increase the percentage of women enrolled in the College of Engineering. This summer she was at an event geared toward elementary school girls. At the event she heard two interesting quotes: one was that she thought STEM was for old people, and the other comment was from a girl saying it was really nice to get to play around with the robots without the boys around telling her what to do. One of the members of my thesis committee, Dr. Don Plumlee, heard her talking about this and said for her to talk to me. The rest is history.

What have your responsibilities been building the team?

I've been recruiting mentors. I'd really like for it to be majority female mentors, but finding them is a bit of a challenge. Also, planning learning experiences for these girls so they feel prepared—workshops with the subteam mentors and getting the team ready from a logistical standpoint. Registering the team, registering for regionals, kickoff, finding space, all of that.

What does success look like?

Success to me looks like a functioning robot at the end of the competition and girls who feel like they gained something from this experience. Whether that's learning what engineering is or learning what real teamwork looks like or realizing what it looks like to get mentored by someone else or be a mentor to someone else—any of those—but, really, a functioning robot and that the girls learned something from the experience.