Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA) sent their first ever robotics team to the Alamo-FIRST (Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition on March 10-12. After a long year and a steep learning curve, the girls made a strong showing at the competition.
For the team, the sense of satisfaction comes from knowing that they have done their best, and reflecting on what they have been able to accomplish in their rookie season.
When sophomore and team captain Alexis Arizola campaigned for a robotics program, she wanted to build on her experience at UTSA’s summer PREP program. After a few unanswered emails, she was surprised when Mike Henry, a FIRST senior mentor, showed up at YWLA in response to her requests, and helped launch the program.
A team assembled, full of bold, confident girls ready for a new challenge in STEM and team building. The FIRST Robotics Competition would prove to be just that, and more.
“It’s far more than they expected,” said Ashley Cash, the team sponsor.
Cash hopes that the San Antonio Independent School District will green light the hire of a career and technology teacher for YWLA. As the school counselor, Cash was one of many SAISD teachers to step up to the challenge outside her expertise when student needs exceed staffing. She hopes that the teams sustained interest and strong showing at the competition will make the case for the district’s investment.
With no lab, no funding, and no technology faculty, they labored over their robot in Principal Delia McLerran’s garage under the tutelage of her husband and their two assigned mentors from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).
Over the course of the school year, they would not only strengthen their STEM content knowledge and team work, but their confidence and resourcefulness as well. Several times they had to assert themselves with their mentors, reminding the scientists of the objectives, and standing up for their own ideas.
“We were working to make it our robot,” said freshmen Gaby Garcia.
The team also had to come to terms with the inevitable simplicity of their robot, compared to the elaborate machines they would see at the competition.
To provide the $6,000 entry fee, Cash applied a rookie team grant from FIRST in Texas and the Texas Workforce Commission. They got the grant, but had no extra income to buy supplies to augment their robot, and they will need to raise $5,000 per year to continue the program.
“We are going to be working very hard from this point forward to secure sponsors that can help us cover these costs. Without their support we will not be able to sustain the robotics program,” Cash said.
FIRST teams are given a kit to work with for basic functions, but they are allowed to add to the base model. The YWLA team didn’t have a budget for additional parts, so they would be making a strong, basic model. They practiced the tasks they could master, and hoped to be an asset to their assigned allies during competition.
They named the team Elektrabots, after the Greek mythological heroine Elektra.
An all-girls robotics team might not be something you see every day, but twenty years ago, it probably wasn’t something you would have seen at all. Women represent about 25% of the STEM workforce now, but in the FIRST Alamo Regional program, they make up 38% of the competitors, a sign that more women may be on their way into careers in science, engineering, math, and technology.
Culture in general has shifted away from the ubiquitous reign of the jocks to embrace nerd-chic, and at the same time, government and industry are placing a heavy emphasis on STEM fields. About five years ago Patrick Felty, regional director for FIRST, saw a surge in team registrations. This year’s FIRST competition will host 18,000 students ages 6-18. Over the summer they will also host their first official UIL competition. With the UIL designation, Felty expects to see participation go as high as 26,000 next year.
In the past, robotics competitions were usually limited to high school teams. However, the organization soon realized that high school was too late for the wide net they needed to truly grow the field.
“We have to engage these kids very early. If we wait until high school we’ve lost all of our girls and we lose our at-risk kids,” Felty said.
FIRST LEGO League (grades 4-8) and Junior FIRST LEGO League (grades K-3) joined the older kids at the Alamo Regional competition for their own one-day tournament on March 12.
The Elektrabots didn’t have the benefit of early engagement. For most of the team the FIRST competition was their first encounter with robotics.
“I don’t necessarily consider myself good at (STEM subjects),” Garcia said.
What they do have, is the empowering environment of YWLA, where they are encouraged to explore any field that interests them, whether or not it has been traditionally thought of as “woman’s field.”
“Being an all girls team really encourages us to empower other girls,” Arizola said.
Going into the competition, Arizola was most concerned with their chances against veteran teams. She was less concerned about the fact that their team was all girls. She’s seen classmates go on to Ivy League schools. She’s known plenty of girls who have excelled in STEM fields. Female achievement is part of the YWLA way of life.
When the girls arrive at the Alamo Regional competition to set up their “pit,” teams who have been to the competition before immediately begin sizing up the competition, asking probing questions about the capability the girls’ robot.
Garcia shrugs off the competitive scouting. She’s done a little of her own, and she’s feeling good about their chances.
“(Our robot is small), but it still works,” Garcia said.
On March 11, the day of the qualifying rounds, the atmosphere at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center was thick with excitement. The FRC teams (grades 9-12) gave their robots a first real pass at the medieval themed obstacle course, surrounded by risers full of cheering fans and rival teams. On the other side of the expo hall, FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) teams from grades 7-12 showcased their robots in mountain rescue scenarios. Energetic music pulsed through the air. Many contestants dressed to the medieval theme.
“These events are a cross between a NASCAR event, a chili cook-off, and a rock concert,” Felty said.
In the midst of the chaos, an ambassador from an all-girls team from Austin walked up to the “pit” where the all-girls team from YWLA was debriefing after their first match. She handed the team a canister of goodies with a girl power message printed on the top.
Of the 66 teams competing at the high school level, only three are all-girl teams. While they were definitely competitors, there was also a sense of solidarity amid the intensity.
Tech corporations and colleges also show up to these events, with their recruiting eyes open.
“The robot is the campfire that everyone comes around,” Felty said.
Companies like Rackspace have gotten on board as sponsors, to further strengthen the pipeline of local talent they hope will flow into the their workforce one day.
“They know that they are either going to hire them, or they are going to be their competitors,” Felty said.
This, along with the presence of international teams and the natural energy of high school competitions makes the whole event feel larger than life for rookies.
“I really don’t think they had an idea of the magnitude of this event,” said assistant principal Regina Arzamendi, “But they are rolling with it.”
All of their work comes down to a series of 2.5 minute matches during which the teams would take on a series of complicated objectives designed to look like a medieval castle siege.
On the competition floor, driver Crystal Lemus has a hard time seeing over the ramparts, making it tricky to drive the robot. Still, the Elektrabots carried out their objectives for their 3-team alliance, making quick work of the tasks and helping their alliance win the match.
Their strategy of sticking to their strengths served them well throughout the day and into the next. In whatever alliance they were placed, they confidently committed to the tasks they had mastered, and consistently delivered.
While they finished the qualification rounds ranked 51, they were chosen by the 4th place team from Killeen to join their alliance for the finals (the top eight finishers after the 88 qualification matches each choose two more teams to advance with them through the rest of the competition). The team had been scouting them throughout the qualification rounds, impressed by their consistency. The Elektrabots were the only rookie team chosen to be part of a finals alliance.
The alliance was knocked out in the quarter finals, but the girls were confident in their first showing at FRC. They’ll be back next year, ready to compete.
One San Antonio team, Harlandale’s STEM Early College High School, was part of the winning alliance with teams from Greenville, Texas and Pasadena, Texas. Their alliance, along with three other teams will progress to the world championship in St. Louis, Missouri, April 27-30.