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Students with robots.

Graduate students (from left to right) Monica Anderson, Kelly Cannon, and Katie Panciera with the Center for Distributed Robotics director Nikos Papanikolopoulos.

Fresh perspectives in cybernetics

Three University women are raising eyebrows for their work with robots

By Bob San

December 8, 2005

When people ask University of Minnesota students Monica Anderson, Kelly Cannon, and Katie Panciera their majors, they're a little reluctant to reveal the answer. "We get that look when we tell them we study robots," says Anderson.

The three are studying for their doctoral degrees in the University's Computer Science and Engineering Department's Center for Distributed Robotics. Studying robots is rare for anyone, men or women, but especially for women. According to center director Nikos Papanikolopoulos, other than the University, only Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Berkley, Stanford, Purdue, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Massachusetts offer graduate degree programs in robotics.

Anderson, a Chicago native, worked for 12 years as a software engineer and Web page designer before deciding four years ago to go back to school to earn a doctoral degree. Cannon, who's from Georgia, came to Minnesota three years ago for a summer internship at Augsburg College. She visited the U's computer science department and was impressed by its programs and faculty. When it was time to choose a graduate school, she picked the University. Panciera comes from Kentucky and knew she wanted to study robotics after doing a summer research project. After graduating from college with a math and computer science degree, she came to the U.

The Center for Distributed Robotics is at the forefront of research in the field. 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.

"You can design a robot to spy on what your brother is doing in your bedroom," says Cannon. "But [mostly we design] robots for use by police officers, firefighters, and the military." Some of the robots have been used by U.S. troops in Iraq. "The idea is to keep people out of danger and save lives," Anderson says. "They can be used to search for people in natural disasters, in collapsed buildings, and to look for bombs."

"You can design a robot to spy on what your brother is doing in your bedroom," says Cannon. "But [mostly we design] robots for use by police officers, firefighters, and the military."

Anderson, Cannon, and Panciera are three of five women among the 20 graduate students in the robotic program. That's a high percentage compared to the overall female enrollment in science and engineering schools. Panciera thinks the high percentage of women makes it easier for the female students. "First, women often work differently than men," she says. "This is not to say that men and women shouldn't both study robotics, but rather I think we often work in a more social way. I enjoy working collaboratively and find that often it is easier to work with other women. Secondly, the social aspects of the lab are important and I would think that it would have taken longer for me to get integrated into the lab socially if there hadn't been other women."

Anderson feels that women can offer different perspectives in the field of engineering and science research. "We tend to approach things and try to solve problems somewhat differently," Anderson says. "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 middle school students this past summer. For five days, Cannon, Anderson, Panciera and other University students gave them insight into the world of robotics. To make sure she could keep the students' attention and enthusiasm, Cannon designed activities such as building palm pilot robot kits, designing dance routines for robots, and offering a Robot Olympics to learn computer science theories and techniques. She even drove the van to pick up students who didn't have transportation to get to the U.

"The kids were great. You could tell they had never seen anything like this before," Cannon says. "We did a survey and more than 90 percent of them said they are definitely going to college and almost 75 percent said they are interested in studying computer science."

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

The three women are also ambassadors for the U and their department. They visit schools, senior citizen centers, and host students who tour the U. On a recent visit by 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. "If they love science and computers, they should study [those subjects], even if society tells them that they shouldn't," Panciera says. "On the other hand, some of these students don't love science and computers. For them, it may be just as important to learn that they aren't passionate about computers, but rather, that they lovetheatre. The experience has no less value for them....If they realize they love computers, I want to help foster that by helping them figure out what they love about them and how they can learn more."

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 told the girls. "You don't have to be 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 says. "I want to show them that we are nice, normal people who do normal things."