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Wind River's Women And Girls Help Each Other Succeed In STEM

Savannah Maher
Trinity Bethel Gould and Maranda Blackbird tinker with their robot during practice.

Every Wednesday afternoon, one hallway at Wyoming Indian High School turns into a robotics arena.

During an after school scrimmage in December, two teams were using remote controlled robots — which they built and programmed themselves — to move big yellow blocks called “stones” around an obstacle course. 12th grader Maranda Blackbird explained the rules.

"When you move this foundation, you get more points when you move it into this depot kind of thing," she said, gesturing to different components of the course.

Blackbird and her classmates Trinity Bethel Gould and Cierra White make up Electric Feather, Wyoming Indian’s founding robotics team. Last year, when the girls first launched the club, Blackbird said their single-speed robot moved too quickly. So, this year, she programmed a function that allows the robot’s driver to slow it down by 20 percent.

"The slower you move, it kind of doesn't jolt so fast that the stones will fall over," she explained. "So that's why we wanted to add a function where you could press a button and make it slower so it's easier for us to move [the robot] without it falling over."

Computer science teacher Sam Hartpence said this is really sophisticated work for high schoolers, and that the club as a whole has come a long way. But one thing that hasn’t changed much is the gender makeup of the club. By a factor of 4 to 1, Hartpence said, the strongest coders at Wyoming Indian High School are girls.

"That's the normal here," Hartpence said. "These girls rise to a challenge. They have a lot of resilience and a lot of grit. They keep working the problem and they don’t give up on it."

Across our state and around the country, schools are looking for ways to help female students succeed in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math. But at Wyoming Indian High School, girls have long taken that initiative on their own.

Credit Savannah Maher
Students in the Wyoming Indian High School robotics club build and program their own robots for competitions.

Take Bobbie Wells as an example. A member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, she graduated from Wyoming Indian in 2007. Today, she works as a civil engineer at a firm in Lander and serves as a community mentor to the robotics team.

But when she was in high school, Wells said there wasn’t much support for students who were serious about STEM, regardless of their gender.

"Yeah, I was pretty disappointed. I knew when I was a sophomore I wanted to go into engineering. So I was already looking at colleges and what their pre-reqs were. And I knew I was going to need to know calculus when I got into college, and [Wyoming Indian] didn’t offer calculus class," Wells said.

So, she had some catching up to do during and after high school. But eventually, Wells landed at the University of Kansas School of Engineering. Her classes skewed male, and she was one of only two Native students in the entire program. As a result, she said she dealt with a few ignorant comments from other students.

"Me and another student we were doing homework, I remember it was for my AutoCAD class, and I was stressing about money and paying my tuition. And he said, 'What are you complaining about, don't Indians get to go to school for free?' And I was like sure, tell that to my student loan officer," Wells said with a laugh.

Plus, the coursework for the program was difficult. When she felt like giving up, Wells said she would lean on a mentor from home: another Northern Arapaho woman named Jola Wallowing Bull who had made a career as an engineer.

"I would ask her for advice sometimes. Like, did you ever feel the same way, did you ever get too overwhelmed, and how did you get through it? Because she graduated, so obviously she got through it," Wells said.

And that's the same message Wells wants to communicate to her mentees on the robotics team. If she could complete an engineering degree after graduating from Wyoming Indian High School, so can they.

As for why girls at Wyoming Indian are such natural leaders in STEM subjects, Wells chalked it up to the problem-solving skills they're likely learning at home.

"A lot of homes [on the reservation,] grandmothers, mothers, sisters are usually taking care of everyone else. Women are usually the ones that keep everything together," Wells said.

In fact, the student who Sam Hartpence identified as the strongest coder at Wyoming Indian High School had to leave robotics practice early to go home and babysit. But 10th grader Angel Behan said before she left that she wants to go to college for computer science and someday work as a programmer.

"I told my grandma, I’m learning coding. And she was like, 'Yeah, you could make a lot of money! You could work for Google!,'" Behan said. "And I said I don’t know about Google, but yeah, I could do that."

Behan and the other girls say they’re glad boys in their school are getting interested in coding and robotics, too. But Maranda Blackbird said the original group will always be proud of last year’s all-girls robotics club.

"I know that there's not a lot of girls in computer science and that men are more dominant in it," Blackbird said. "But I like how we started [the club] and it was just girls. And not only that, but it was the first robotics club at Wyoming Indian High School. That just kind of makes it special for us, and kind of unique."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah is a Report For America corps member. 

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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