Duluth's 'Rosie the Riveter' of robots earns statewide attentionA Duluth East High School student is among the winners of statewide award that is meant to help bridge the gender gap for women in technology careers.
A Duluth East High School student is among the winners of statewide award that is meant to help bridge the gender gap for women in technology careers.
Kirsi Kuutti, a senior at East, was named one of six inaugural winners of the Minnesota Aspirations for Women in Computing Award last month.
“I kind of just applied, not thinking that I was even qualified when I was accepted,” she said. “It was such an honor. The award really emphasizes not only IT, but all STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and making sure there are females going into these male-oriented fields. I’m glad to be an advocate for that.”
Kuutti has been a part of the Duluth East Daredevils robotics team for all four years of high school and is currently serving as the captain. Her position requires her to oversee all programming, mechanical, electrical, marketing and community outreach aspects of the team.
“I could easily put her as lead in any of those departments, but I need her as the captain,” said Tim Velner, coach of the Daredevils and a teacher at East. “You just don’t find individuals that are capable of doing all of these things.”
Velner credits Kuutti with helping robotics grow in northern Minnesota and getting more females involved with organizations.
“When she came on the team, we were the only ones in the area and we were traveling to Minneapolis to compete,” he said. “Now we have two regionals up here and 100 teams coming to Duluth. There are five teams in Duluth, and others are springing up.
“Kirsi Kuutti has driven the community outreach. The effort she put into making this robotics mecca in Duluth, she’s leaving, at 17, a huge mark on this community that will last for years. How many 17-year-olds do this?”
While the Daredevils have a fairly even split of males and females, that’s not something that Kuutti sees often at competitions.
“It’s odd to see girls in robotics,” she said. “I’ve been getting out there in the community trying to work on that, being the Rosie the Riveter of robotics and technology.”
Besides her work with the robotics team, Kuutti’s work with a professor to develop software for the teaching of programming was another reason for Kuutti’s selection for the award.
While computing is one of the primary focuses of the award, Kuutti plans to study biomedical or electrical engineering in college. She hasn’t yet decided which school she will attend this fall.
“It’s definitely going to be something that applies these computer skills,” she said of her future study plans. “Using computer software, modeling tools and those kinds of program for studying, it will be very applicable to my studies in college.”
Kuutti was a runner-up in the national award competition in 2012. The award was brought to the state level for the first time this year, so she applied again, and this time was a winner.
Russell Fraenkel, the director of collaborative programs and outreach for Advance IT Minnesota, which administers the award, said that by bringing the competition to the state level, more young women can take notice of computing and technology careers.
“The exciting part for us was that a number of IT companies and individual professionals are partnering with us to do this, largely in response to this skills gap that exists in it in general,” he said. “It’s not like we have an employment gap. We have a skills gap, a large gap with women.”
Women held 60 percent of American jobs in 2011, but accounted for only 25 percent of the computer-related occupations, according to Advance IT Minnesota, and demand for technology careers is expected to continue growing in the foreseeable future.
The awards program was created in response to those statistics in an effort to promote computing and bridge the gap.
“The thought was that we could create an opportunity to increase awareness of technology-type careers and also, at same time, assist and support young women and help them recognize that technology careers are within reach,” Fraenkel said.
Kuutti, the only winner from Duluth, will travel to the Twin Cities in April to formally accept the award and be recognized with the state’s five other winners and six runners-up.