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All-girls team competes in regional robotics contest while learning about science, technology

TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Coach Xavier Nixon helps Nano Ninjas member Ramya Reddy prepare Chanel the robot for this week's super-regional competition.This week, the Nano Ninjas are taking on the best young robot-builders on the West Coast.

In the future, they might just change the world.

The Nano Ninjas, a team of mostly Beaverton-area middle-schoolers, is among more than a dozen Oregon teams that qualified in late February for the FIRST Tech Super-Regional Championship in Oakland, Calif. It runs through Saturday and includes qualifying middle- and high-school teams from 13 western states.

But the Ninjas, in their rookie season at this level, are one of the few elite squads made up entirely of girls — girls who are keenly interested in going on to colleges and careers in highly technical fields. Those “STEM” fields (short for science, technology, engineering and math) for years have been dominated by males.

“We are an under-represented group,” said Namitha Nixon, a Ninja who goes to school at Stoller Middle School.

The Ninjas no doubt will have their work cut out for them in the Bay Area.

Other teams competing from the greater Beaverton community include: the high-schoolers on the Batteries in Black team wo took the top prize in Oregon; and the Hot Wired Robotics crew that finished second and already has a world championship pedigree. In addition, a Gifted Gears team that draws members from throughout the Portland area includes talented Beaverton-area middle-schoolers, and a number of the teams include girls.

Not that bringing the biggest trophy back from California is the Ninjas’ ultimate goal.

“We’re not just there to win,” said Nandhana Nixon. “For our team, we’ve never gotten out of state (and) we’re really excited.”

Nandhana is Namitha’s twin sister and also a student at Stoller, where 10 of the 15 team members go to school. The rest attend nearby Meadow Park Middle School, the International School of Beaverton and Valley Catholic School, with one from Tualatin’s Hazelbrook Middle School.TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Chanel the robot, the 16th member of the Nano Ninjas robotics team, will show her stuff against teams from 13 western states this week in Oakland, Calif.

Building their own futures and helping build a path for more girls to go into STEM careers is what’s important.

The Ninjas represent a larger movement to foster in girls a greater interest in scientific and technical fields. Intel, for example, is making a concerted effort to diversify its workforce, believing that different ways of looking at problems leads to better solutions and products that in turn will improve the lives of more people. The push includes a strong focus on recruiting more women to play a bigger role in shaping the future of innovation.

Inside the Reddy family’s tidy garage in a new neighborhood near Stoller, a location the girls dubbed “Ramya’s Hideout” where they gather to work on their robot, the gender differences among generations is immediately clear. On a recent Saturday several of their parents — all fathers — stick around to offer encouragement and support as needed while the girls work on their robot. The dads, most of them from India, are engineers who work for local companies including Intel or Nike.

The Ninjas’ generation, still a decade away from entering the workforce, could help turn the gender tide.

Their parents encouraged the girls to get an early start in STEM, and several teammates have been involved in FIRST’s Lego Leagues for more than half their lives. Now 12 to 14 years old and in seventh and eighth grades, they have entered their first year at the Tech Championship level with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a not-for-profit organization that promotes interest in STEM subjects for young people. It is organizing this week’s robotics competition, a regional qualifier for teams looking to go to the 2016 national championships.

The Nano Ninjas are affiliated with STEM4Girls, a local nonprofit co-founded by Westview High School student Anna Nixon (older sister of Nandhana and Namitha) with her father and Ninjas coach Xavier Nixon. STEM4Girls helps promote an interest in science and technology for girls.

The younger Ninjas hope they in turn can inspire other girls both close to home in the U.S. and around the world, including in their parents’ homelands, where many kids don’t have the same opportunities.

In the Bethany-area garage, they worked to put the final touches on their robot, whom they’ve named Chanel, partly for the channel-shaped pieces used in its construction and partly for the women’s perfume.

Chanel, in the making since the beginning of the school year, is a high-tech wonder the girls can drive around a set field, picking up items and depositing them in bins, among other tasks demanded by this year’s “RES-Q” themed competition. Along the way, the girls used tech tools more common to college engineering classes and the world’s leading technology companies, their fathers said.

For example, they used the Overleaf online platform to document Chanel’s ongoing creation in an engineering notebook so detailed that it’s the size of a city phone book, and was a key reason they won the Think Award at the Portland competition to punch their ticket to Oakland. Their list of sponsors includes MathWorks and a roster of high-tech companies (along with local support) that would make an MIT grad student drool.

Each of the girls has spent hundreds of hours working with Nano Ninjas, often in subgroups that meet almost daily after school.

Like other tweens and young teens, they also are involved in things such as sports and piano and dance.

“You’re not going to use all of that in the real world,” said Sahana Inteti, a student at Valley Catholic.

“If you have an inquiring mind,” Coach Xavier said, “you can explore a lot of things.”

Meet the Ninjas

The full roster of Nano Ninjas includes: Nandhana Nixon, Namitha Nixon, Shruthi Ananth, Esha Nagul, Rhea Oommen, Ramya Reddy, Rushali Desai, Harini Ganesh, Shamamah Khan, Aishwarya Grandhe, Irene George, Sahana Inteti, Maria Kolattukudy, Navyatha Buddi and Adithi Mahankali.

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