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Doing the Robot All the Way to the Smithsonian

First-year Student’s Creation in ‘Girlhood’ Exhibit

By Sala Levin ’10

LEGO robot

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

This LEGO robot (left), featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s “Girlhood” exhibit, was built by Amber Melton ’24 (below) when she was a high schooler. Melton was a participant and then a teaching assistant in UMD’s CompSciConnect program for middle schoolers.

“Make a Smithsonian-worthy contribution to science.” It’s probably a goal that sits alongside “Win a Nobel Prize” and “Figure out that whole black hole thing” on the lifelong to-do lists of many STEM types. Amber Melton ’24 can now check that one off, thanks to a robot she built as a high schooler.

Part of the National Museum of American History’s “Girlhood (It’s Complicated)” exhibit, which explores the history and experience of girls in America, Melton’s robot is housed in the “Education” section and demonstrates an evolution in girls’ schooling and instruction. She built the robot in UMD’s CompSciConnect summer program for middle school students who wouldn’t otherwise learn computer science.

Amber Melton ’24 headshot“The idea of something that I put together being on display anywhere, not to mention the Smithsonian, is just mind-boggling,” said Melton. “It’s one of my proudest achievements.”

Melton started as a CompSciConnect participant after her mom—who had developed an interest in women in science—heard about the program at her office. Started and overseen by Jan Plane, director of the Maryland Center for Women in Computing and of the Iribe Initiative for Inclusion and Diversity in Computing, the three-year experience is intended to introduce students to the breadth of computer science. 

“I want to show them how computer science connects to everything in the world,” said Plane. “There's hardly a job you can have now that doesn't involve some computing.”

After completing CompSciConnect, Melton returned as a teaching assistant in high school. That was when Plane (or “Dr. Jan,” as Melton called her) approached her with a daunting task: The Smithsonian wants a robot. Build it ASAP.

Plane had been coordinating with a Smithsonian employee about an object for the “Girlhood” exhibit, and once they’d settled on a robot, the deadline was tight. Plane turned to Melton, who led several students in creating sensors for a roughly 10-inch-tall, gray, rubber and plastic LEGO robot able to follow a colored line and stay on course. (Several LEGO figures hitch a ride on the robot, too.)

“I was definitely very nervous, and I was stressed because I was not sure that I could actually get anything that felt worthy done in that time,” said Melton.

Plane hopes that exhibit visitors will be drawn to its diminutive cuteness and see “that creativity piece of building a robot,” she said. Also included in the exhibition’s “Education” section are a school desk model from 1879, the 1959 graduation dress of one of the students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School and a botanical notebook from 1837.

For Melton, now a computer science major, having a small place in one of the country’s most storied institutions has been a jolt of confidence—one that other girls who feel “average” might be able to use, too, she said. “I think it's really important to understand that even if you feel like you're really average and you're doing really average things, they can have much more of an impact than you think, and they can become greater than you anticipate.” 

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