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How robotics changed one girl’s path

She had barely heard the word before: robotics. The realm of milling machines and electrical engineering might as well have been on the far side of the moon.

But something piqued the curiosity of sophomore De'Shondria Bedenfield in 2009 when her science teacher at Hamady High School in Flint handed out a sheet inviting students to join a robotics team known as Metal Muscle.

“I wasn't that interested at first,” she recalled. But Bedenfield decided to give it a try.

At it turned out, her team included students from rival Beecher High School just outside Flint. Months before, two Beecher students and two former Beecher students were shot in a parking lot at Beecher after a basketball game in an apparent dispute with Hamady students.

“There was a little bit of tension at first,” Bedenfield said. “We had to get over that barrier.”

They did. And soon enough, Bedenfield said, “I was hooked.”

“It actually helped my entire life. The mathematics part, it helped me in high school. You think about things more mechanically. You start thinking outside the box.”

“I didn't seek out robotics. Robotics came to me. I am lucky it did.” -- former Flint Hamady High student De'Shondria Bedenfield

Among her mentors on that team was Dr. Henry Kowalski, a Kettering University professor who has guided robotics participants from Metal Muscle for the past 10 years. Over that time, he has watched others like Bedenfield achieve more than they ever imagined they could.

“He kind of took me under his wing,” said Bedenfield, now 20.

A mind blossoms

Kowalski said Bedenfield, like many, just needed an opportunity and a little encouragement.

“She was a little bit of a loner at first and very quiet. But she had talent. Being on the team and seeing that she could do what everyone else was doing, she really blossomed,” he said.

In the three years she competed, Bedenfield tackled problems in wiring and electrical engineering. She learned how to operate a table saw and milling machine. She learned about computer-aided design.

Kowalski said she also excelled at writing, as each year she submitted as part of the competition an essay and competition videos on behalf of the team. But perhaps most important, she discovered there was no reason a female couldn't do all these things.

At the end of her sophomore year, she traveled to the national championships in Atlanta. “It the first time in my life I had ever flown. It was the first time I had ever been away from my family.”

She met students from Hawaii, Finland and Jamaica. She toured historic Atlanta landmarks and visited the CNN Center. She even wrangled the autograph of Dean Kamen, the New Hampshire inventor and entrepreneur who started robotics competitions in 1989.

“It was the highlight of the entire trip,” she said.

And she became close with the students from Beecher. “I would definitely say that through robotics I made lifelong friends, not just teammates.”

The experience helped lead her to college, though she a chose a field other than engineering. She is now a junior political science major at Central Michigan University, with plans to attend graduate school and perhaps become a teacher. She hasn't forgotten how she got there.

“You look at yourself as one of the lucky ones,” Bedenfield said. “Robotics taught us you can have opportunities. I didn't seek out robotics. Robotics came to me. I am lucky it did.”

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