‘There was this idea that girls don’t do ... robotics.’ She wanted to change that.

Members of the Cortechs youth robotics team in southwestern Wake County.
Members of the Cortechs youth robotics team in southwestern Wake County. Courtesy of Sandra Brindis

Sandra Brindis, a mother of two boys, is on a mission to encourage girls to get excited about engineering and technology. One of her sons started a robotics team three years ago, and Brindis continues to recruit girls to the team, even though her son has moved on to college. Here, the Cary resident talks about stereotypes, challenges and the skills kids need to learn now to succeed in the workforce.

Q: Women make up about one-fourth of the tech industry. What fueled your passion for getting girls involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)?

A: I tutor, and I had a sixth-grade girl at my kitchen table, and the robotics team was upstairs meeting. She heard a girl’s voice, and she asked what was going on. I told her and she said, ‘How is that possible? At school, only boys do robotics.’ There was this idea that girls don’t do STEM things and robotics, that it was a boys’ activity. It was right in front of me.

Q: The team, Cortechs, launched in 2014, and your son recruited a girl as co-captain. What were the initial challenges?

A: The first year was rough. There are different approaches, and girls and boys come in with different ideas and with the way they see things. The girls on the team have mixed feelings, I’ve found. They don’t want to be seen as different or recruited just because they’re girls. To be honest, we lost a few girls after that first year. We really had to look at how to create an environment where boys and girls could function together. I spoke to another coach on a team in Charlotte, and she shared they had similar issues.

Q: How did you navigate all of that?

A: I had to have discussions with the boys on the team. I would tell them, ‘One day you’re going to be in the workforce, and there are things you can’t do and say.’ I tried to instill professionalism. I think the challenges we had are no different than you have in industry.

I had to give the young women a forum to talk about it. Letting them voice their concerns, what they’re experiencing and to help them find solutions that aren’t gender-based, instead of creating an us-vs.-them mentality, because that can easily happen.

Q: Is the team is stronger now?

A: Yes. We don’t have a problem this year. I thought it was interesting that last season our team had the most challenging season in terms of team dynamics, some of it gender-related, but it was also our most successful season. Our robot did really well; we won a lot of awards, and all of the team members bonded in positive ways. The struggles and working through them made the team stronger.

Q: Cortechs has won many awards, including a prestigious quality award from Motorola at the world championship earlier this year in Houston. Is that what drives you?

A: It’s not about the students being brilliant, it’s about them finding their passion and working toward something. My parents were immigrants. They barely finished sixth grade. From an early age, I was driven to learn. I graduated from college and went to grad school. These kids are engaged; it’s everything to them.

I can tell you so many instances where kids’ lives have changed doing this program. It’s not about just the engineering and the hard skills, but it’s those soft skills that are hard to get exposure to – going to companies, talking to adults, raising money, writing emails and interacting with all kinds of people. They develop soft skills they’ll need in the workforce. It’s the future generation.

Q: What about underserved children who might not have as many STEM opportunities?

A: On top of trying to recruit and empower girls, we’re big about getting into those communities where they don’t have the resources or the mentoring to do this. So we open up our workspace. We just hosted 30 kids from the Garner Road Community Center. For two hours they were building things and doing interactive science experiments. We’re going to continue meeting with them once a week.

Do you want to nominate someone for Tar Heel of the Week? Email tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Sandra Brindis – Tar Heel of the Week

Born: Dec. 14, 1961, in New York City

Raised: Queens, New York

Family: Married, two sons

Organization website: https://cortechsrobotics.com