A pink rover tackles the Red Planet — and obstacles for women in science

Members of the Monash University rover team pose with the Waratah, named after a local Australian flower.Credit: Amanda Heidt

In late May, dozens of teams traveled to tiny Hanksville, Utah, population 162, to compete in the world’s largest university-level robotics competition. It is held annually in an area of ​​the southern Utah desert chosen for its appearance on Mars. University Rover Challenge It pits the next generation of space scientists and their rovers against each other over three days.

The Monash Nova Rover Team, from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, took second place for the second year in a row, deftly guiding its robot through Utah’s rugged badlands as it searched for life, delivered instruments to astronauts and repaired a mock lander. But beyond its engineering prowess, the team is notable for another reason this year. In a competition dominated by men, women made up almost half of the team’s leadership, and the team’s rover – named Wardah after a local Australian flower – was a warm shade of pink, unmistakable amid a sea of ​​black and silver. Competitors. „It’s a conversation starter because it’s a contradiction, and it shouldn’t be,” said Chloe Chang, a fifth-year robotics and mechatronics undergraduate and co-chair of the group.

Chang says she and her teammates designed Warada to spark conversation about women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Although most of the 31 teams had at least one woman, the demographics of the event reflect a broad lack of representation in engineering and robotics, with women holding only one in five engineering degrees in the United States and the United Kingdom. A river in Australia. The proportion of women who pursue successful, full-time engineering careers is even lower.

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Chang says the robot’s brilliant color is a simple but powerful way to engage with others about what divergent thinking can bring to engineering and robotics. „Pink Rover has brought together many different people to support a very complex cause.”

STEM: The Next Generation

Before switching to engineering in 2019, Chang was a fashion design student. After transitioning, she first felt self-conscious about her colorful clothes and downplayed her personality among her mostly male peers. But the lack of self-reliance soon became tiresome. When she joined the rover team, Chang decided to create a supportive space and hire more women. The most important thing for her is that the prospective member should be interested and cooperative.

„Robotics is fundamentally creative, and we want to access a large pool of creative thinking and ideas to find better solutions to engineering problems,” Chang says. „Seeing more women getting into leadership positions, that visibility definitely helps.”

While some of Chang’s hires grew up interested in STEM, others, like Chang, took a less conventional path. The group’s other leader, Rebecca Leith, left her job as a dancer with the Queensland Ballet to pursue a double degree in chemistry and engineering, and was surprised that robotics required the same coordination and grit that dancing required. Lauren Earls, who helped design and build the rover’s chassis, attended a Catholic girls’ school that didn’t emphasize STEM subjects. While retreating to a convent, she joins a group of students in a team-building exercise using cardboard and rubber bands to create a prosthetic arm. „I don’t know how I pulled it off, but I managed to do something, and my teachers were really impressed,” Earls says. „It was a pivotal memory, and I remember thinking, 'If this is what makes me happy, I need to go out and find it.'”

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Pink robot rover on desert landscape with gray clouds above.

The Monash University rover against the Mars-like landscape of the Utah desert.Credit: Amanda Heidt

To build the pink rover, the idea had to be pitched to 100 members of the team, 30 of whom were women. Not everyone likes the idea, Leith says: Some worry that choosing pink to represent women is tokenizing, because not every woman likes the color. The group spent months workshopping their campaign messages and then voted on the final language.

Viewing the plan after the vote was a logistical challenge. In some cases, team sponsors had to place special orders to supply the pink parts. But in February, the Waratah debuted before an audience of 300 supporters, including representatives from the Australian Space Agency. A month later, the team won its first match Australian Rover Challenge.

To further reinforce its message, the group also launched a three-pronged initiative, including reaching out to local secondary schools. Social media campaign A Pink Rover Woman at a STEM night in Melbourne in May to attract sponsors and highlight the team’s work.

„You can’t be what you can’t see, so we’re really passionate about making sure other people see the amazing work these women are doing,” Chang says.

New frontiers

The Monash team’s efforts come at the right time. Australia is currently ramping up its space industry Moon to Mars The initiative is funding Aus$150 million (US$100 million) to develop new technologies. By mid-2022, NASA Launched rockets From the continent for the first time since 1995.

These changes mean new opportunities, including the possibility for students to pursue careers in aerospace engineering when they might have taken jobs in mining or agriculture. Chang has accepted a remote position as a mechanical engineer at Lunar Outpost, a Colorado-based technology company that is a member of one of the two consortia to get the Mars Initiative through the Moon and designed the lunar rover. Sooner than 2026. Developers even discussed making the rover a brighter color to stand out against the moon’s gray surface, he says.

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Surrounding himself with supportive teammates has given Chang the confidence to go after these big goals, and other colleagues share that sentiment. Some members talk about starting their own companies or taking leadership positions.

„When I talk to people on the team about what they want to do after they graduate, it’s not just 'Oh, I want to do this job in this industry.’ Everyone is thinking about how to improve and innovate,” says Manika Goyal, the team’s software lead. „If I hadn’t joined the team, I would have been a software engineer at a company, but I think I’m more inspired now to do other things that I’m passionate about.”

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