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Xyla Foxlin: Defying Stereotypes as a Female Engineer

For Xyla Foxlin, challenging labels is a habit. As a woman in engineering, she is passionate about advocating for females in the field. Xyla knows that it’s okay to be smart and fashionable– femininity and engineering are not mutually exclusive. She wants to “infiltrate the pink aisle” put an end to existing gender stereotypes by making more engineering toys for young girls with questions like, “Why can’t Rapunzel’s tower have a pulley system or a pneumatic moat?” It’s no wonder she strives to work for Disney as an Imagineer.

With plans to start her own robotics company, Xyla already has a ton of impressive experience. She is president of the CWRU Robotics team, where she leads the team to compete at the NASA Robotic Mining Competition and other national challenges. She competes in hackathons around the country with her school’s computer science interest group, and expanded Case Western Reserve University’s annual “Hackathon” event—where students are challenged to code a project in 24 or 36 hours—to include all types of engineering. This girl is going places.

Name: Xyla Foxlin
Age: 19
College: Case Western Reserve University
Majors: B.S. Mechanical Engineering, B.S. Aerospace Engineering, Minor: Studio Art
Graduation Year: 2018
Hometown: Boston, MA
Twitter Handle: @FlyingRobotGirl

Her Campus: What makes you unique?

Xyla Foxlin: I’m a robot-building, rocket-designing, music-making, pilot with a knack for technical theatre and love of the outdoors. I can sing the entire soundtrack of “Miss Saigon”, then turn around and list the differences between a Cessna 150 and a Piper Comanche. Three minutes later, I’ll be describing how amazing Dvorak’s “American Quartet” is, or how omni-wheels change a robot’s chassis design. I proudly make terrible robot puns at parties or recite a few lines (with cues!) of the latest play performed by my school in daily conversation. My friends lovingly call me the “Queen of Robots” and poke fun at how I wear dresses and suede boots instead of tape-wrapped glasses.

“Xyla, you’re doing the nerd thing wrong!” they’ll say, but I disagree. To me, a nerd is someone who is passionate and invested in what she does, intelligent and hard working. She doesn’t have to be socially awkward or wear clothing from the last century; I am completely at ease communicating with peers and adults, and I happily wear floral skirts to robotics competitions. I proudly embrace nerd-dom but resist its stereotypes. I fall perfectly into my own definition of nerd: I am passionate about everything I do, invested and knowledgeable. I love a multitude of things, many of which can be instantly characterized as “nerdy,” but instead of being insecure about it as I once was, I cherish it as part of my identity. I am a nerd, and I am proud.

HC: How have you worked to advocate for women in engineering?

XF: Starting in high school, I began doing my best to encourage more girls to pick up STEM and stay with it. I mentored young girls’ lego robotics teams and began really actively recruiting more girls to join my FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology] team [for an enormous annual international technology challenge]. When I became captain of that team, I was the only girl. I convinced one of my best friends to join as well, and together we began to form a little supportive community within the team. I did my best to drive younger girls home after robotics and talk to them about life, robotics and how they feel about everything. I did my best to make sure the entire team understood how to treat everyone equally, regardless of not only gender but also race and background. I gave a handful of presentations on Women in STEM around my town and was invited to give the same presentation at some local tech companies as well.

Following an incredible robotics season my senior year (captained to elimination rounds at World Championships, set the USA high score twice at Super Regional Championships), I convinced my robotics mentor–the programming teacher at my high school and the most incredible teacher I’ve ever had–to found the town’s first all-girls robotics team with me. I put posters all over the girls bathrooms, we got the team registered, and right before I graduated I got to host the first meeting of The Parity Bits. Their captains did an amazing job, and the robotics program at Lexington High went from 8 girls on the coed team to over 30 enthusiastic, brilliant ladies—and that number is still growing.

Now that I’m in college, I mentor girls in NCWIT (National Center for Women in Information Technology) through the college process, and I form hackathon teams of all women. At MHacks this fall, my NCWIT team built a web app that took elementary school girls through the basics of robotics by following the story of the Wizard of Oz. I’ve brought my demo rocket and quadcopter to elementary schools and gotten a lot of girls who lived on my floor to get involved with engineering and tech groups on campus.

HC: What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?

XF: After giving a talk at an elementary school near my college, a little girl came over to me holding the quadcopter I’d built and handed it back and said, “I want to be just like you when I grow up.”

HC: What do you think is the biggest factor that led you to where you are today?

XF: The summer after my junior year of high school, I decided to pursue my lifelong dream of flight. On paper it was crazy- I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet, I couldn’t afford lessons, and I would be joining the 6% minority of women in aviation. Luckily, the craziness didn’t hit me until after I did it, and learning to fly was easily the best thing that has happened to me.

That fall, I started calling FBOs to see who would hire me in exchange for flight hours. Companies told me they didn’t want to hire a high schooler, but I later found out a few of them hired boys my age with no experience. Eventually I got an internship at Eagle East Aviation, an hour away from my house, working 20 hours of line crew for each hour in the air.

Sitting on my own in the cockpit of an aircraft is easily the most empowering thing I’ve done, and although I haven’t completed my full license yet I’ve proven to myself that I can. Frequently, our biggest hurdle is ourselves, and in that moment when I soloed for the first time, I cleared that hurdle.

HC: What are you working on right now?

XF: Amoungst others, teddy bears! Yup- you heard me right. I’m working on developing a sensor suite that can detect when a bear is being hugged and how much, but without the bear losing any huggability to hard sensors. Using an Internet of Things application and a series of microprocessors with wifi shields, the bear is paired to another bear, so that when you hug one bear, the paired bear thousands of miles will vibrate. That way, if a parent and child, siblings, or a couple have to be separated for a long period of time, they can still hug each other. A preliminary demo video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOeURCK_bmc

The iRobot work I’m working on can’t be disclosed, but my main project on the home robot side of things. I’m also working with the STEM education team to get robots into classrooms.

I’m also working on this year’s NASA robot, an autonomous snowplow robot and more! I’m also working on making my school’s innovation center and machine shop more accessible to all students and student groups, not just engineers.

HC: What are your top goals and priorities post-graduation?

XF: Be happy, and ideally spread that happiness to others. Whether that be through robotics, music, flight, art [or] something I don’t even know yet, that’s the number one goal. My dream is to be a Disney Imagineer someday, but I also plan on starting a robotics company.

Jamie is a senior Writing, Literature and Publishing major at Emerson College in Boston, MA. She is the Her Campus Life Editor, a National Contributing Writer, and Campus Correspondent of the Emerson Her Campus chapter. Jamie plans to pursue a career in the magazine industry. See more of her work at: www.jamiemkravitz.com
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