Bowdoin’s RoboCup team, Northern Bites, is somewhat of an outlier in the world of soccer playing robots. The 10-year-old team regularly competes against larger university teams made up of both undergraduate and graduate students. Competitors from small liberal arts colleges are rare. Despite this, Northern Bites is a force in the international arena. Last spring it came in second in the RoboCup U.S. Open.
Even more unusual perhaps, is that this year Northern Bites is being led by two women, Nicole Morin ’16 and Megan Maher ’16. The current team also has more female members than it has ever had before — four altogether.
RoboCup is an international collegiate competition that fosters innovative robotics research. Students must figure out how to program small robots to play soccer, a feat that requires the robots to have relatively sophisticated abilities, such analyzing as many as 60 images a second in order to keep track of where they are and the state of the game.
Both Morin and Maher say one of the most valuable aspects of participating in RoboCup is that they’ve worked on advanced coding problems that go well beyond those they’ve encountered in class. Morin said this challenge and its rewards have increased her interest in computer science. She is majoring in computer science and minoring in visual arts.
Maher, a computer science and math major explained that “working on RoboCup allows you to get your feet wet in a lot of different parts of computer science. There are so many things we cover in RoboCup we never would have learned in class.” In particular she said, it piqued her interest in computer vision, and she is now building a vision-based system to detect robots for her honors project.
The increasing numbers of women on Bowdoin’s RoboCup team is a trend that Eric Chown, professor of computer science and RoboCup’s advisor, thinks will continue. For one thing, more female students at Bowdoin are majoring in computer science. Chown also pointed out that when women see other women doing activities traditionally dominated by men, they’re more willing to jump in. “It’s harder for women to join an all-male team,” he observed.
Both Morin and Maher say Elizabeth Mamantov ’13 was an important mentor to them during their first year at Bowdoin, when they joined Northern Bites. When Mamantov became co-captain of Bowdoin’s team her senior year, she was the first female to assume the position. She is now a Ph.D. candidate working on cognitive robotics at the University of Michigan. Last year, Mamantov was one of 10 women in the country to win a Microsoft Graduate Women’s Scholarship.
“She’s so inspiring, one of the smartest people I’ve ever interacted with at Bowdoin,” Morin said. “The team was predominantly men, but they looked up to her.” Maher added that Mamantov worked closely with both her and Morin, teaching them a lot about robotics coding. “It’s a harsh learning curve, because the code base is so extensive,” Maher explained.
In other parts of the campus, female students in computer science are trying to create a more supportive environment for their peers. In 2014, a couple of students started the group Bowdoin Women in Computer Science, which aims to encourage women to sign up for computer science classes and to pursue careers in the field. “This is the kind of thing that makes a difference,” Chown said. In October, Bowdoin sent 10 students in the group to the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing conference in Houston, Texas, an event Maher and Morin both described as inspiring.
Chown said he asked Maher and Morin to lead the team this year for two major reasons. “I want people who know what they’re doing and who command respect,” he said. Besides individually making important contributions that enhanced the playing ability of the robots, he said he had noticed their teammates looking to them for guidance.
As captains, Maher and Morin are responsible for testing the software students create for the robots and recruiting and training new members. Both students are also working on honors projects based on their RoboCup research.
Chown has high praise for the two captains’ abilities. “I told Nikki, we need to have a goalie that makes saves,” he recalled. “She worked on the goalie last year, and it was our strength. It made a number of spectacular saves.” Her project this year involves giving robots the ability to adapt to changing light conditions. In the old model, the robots were set up to recognize colors (such as the green field, orange ball and white field lines) in specific and unchanging conditions, but in the current model, the robots must adjust to new light conditions, and therefore changing colors, in under a second.
Maher meanwhile is working on a visual detection system that will enable the robots to better distinguish their teammates. “Machine vision is widely regarded as the hardest problem, not only in robotics, but in all of artificial intelligence,” Chown said. “Megan is trying to solve the hardest current machine vision problem within RoboCup, which is recognizing and tracking individual robots. It is especially hard this year because for the first time teams are allowed to use custom jerseys of any color or design that they want. This means that Megan will have to write code that can learn these colors and designs on the fly, without any foreknowledge of what they will be.”
The two captains are not only highly capable, but they are also driven, self-motivated, organized, polite and humble, according to Chown. “With some students, you say, ‘Here’s what I want,’ and they say, ‘How do I do that?’” he said. “With Megan and Nikki, I say, ‘Here’s what I want you to do,’ they say ‘Okay’, and they come back and it’s done.”