Robot 9717A zips around the competition pit, burrowing into corners and sneaking behind larger bots to hunt yellow foam stars and orange cloth cubes. Nicknamed “Cobra” for its claw-like apparatus designed to lunge out during matches, grabbing at the stars and cubes, it stands out not only for its lithe design in a pack of chunky square robots, but also for who made it: the St. Catharine Comets, a group of scrappy teenagers from the St. Catharine’s Academy in the northeast Bronx and one of the few all-girls robotics teams on the competitive high school circuit in New York State.
Competitive robotics is gaining widespread attention as a gateway into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. Despite a national and local push to bring high-level science and technology training to as many high school students as possible, girls — and low income and minority girls in particular — are still wildly underrepresented. In 2011, only eleven percent of the STEM workforce was black, and seven percent of the STEM workforce was Hispanic. Among science and engineering graduates, about a third are women. And yet almost twice as many men are employed in STEM careers.
The Comets, led by coach Sheree Petrignani, are trying to topple that imbalance and prove to their mostly-male opponents, their families, and themselves, that they belong in competitive robotics, in coveted college engineering programs, and eventually in the profession as expert programmers, designers, and creators in STEM fields.
“I really can’t imagine high school without robotics,” says Angelique Taveras, the team’s leading builder. “I think I’d be constantly searching for the support from a stable group and for a purpose. But on the robotics team, I feel like I found that.”
Taveras, 17, didn’t consider joining the robotics team when she first enrolled at St. Catharine’s as a freshman. The fastest way to make friends, she thought, was to join the cheerleading team. But Taveras had spent the previous summer studying basic hydraulic mechanics while interning at a summer engineering camp, and was itching to learn more. So she abandoned cheerleading to become the youngest member on St. Catharine’s competitive robotics team. Now, having dedicated four years to robotics, she’s the most veteran builder and the only senior on the team.
“Robotics has really built the foundation to who I am,” Taveras says. “The most amazing thing is the fact that you’re creating something. It almost feels like you can do anything.”
St. Catharine Academy couldn’t always afford a robotics lab. Tuition is about $8,750 per year, but roughly half of the students receive some financial aid. Many students are first-generation immigrants; the student body is 22 percent white. The school is in the northeast corner of the Bronx where household income is the lowest of the five boroughs. Tuition can be a huge chunk of a family’s annual income, raising pressure on the young women to succeed.
With the help of donations from the Class of 1966, St. Catharine Academy recently added a 3D printer to their growing lab full of Legos, tools, various-sized robots, a motorized Ferris wheel, and solar submarines. Building supplies include hydraulic motors and three-gear chains. Trophies and plaques decorate shelves and STEM-related newspaper clippings hang on the walls. But the cost of building the lab was just an initial investment. A battery that runs for about four minutes costs $40. A motor that lasts for only two tournaments costs $40. And if the team qualifies for nationals this spring, they’d need to raise about $40,000 to charter a bus to the VEX tournament in Waukee, Iowa.
Petrignani has built the robotics program from the ground up since she started teaching at St. Catharine Academy in 2011. It took a year to design the curriculum and recruit students for the competition team. To pique interest, Petrignani designed a summer intensive course for potential middle school talent, encouraging promising students to register for high school robotics. In the last five years, Petrignani’s recruited more girls to join the team, but it’s still sometimes an uphill battle for the girls to prioritize robotics.
“For the girls who are first generation here in the United States,” Petrignani says, “I do feel they need to be helpers at home more with siblings.” When the girls struggle to juggle the demands of their honors and AP level school work with hours spent building in the robotics lab and extra family obligations, Petrignani helps supervise their time management. “I don’t want to add additional stress. The only time the beast comes out of me is when we’re on the field, but they know it’s only game talk.”
The Comets’ goal this year is to qualify for the national VEX Robotics Competition, after a series of scrimmages and regionals that could potentially lead to state championships and ultimately the national tournament in Iowa. But breaking into the national stage this year isn’t the last stop for the Comets; instead, it’s a step toward a much larger end goal.
“My mission in life is to recruit as many young women into the field of STEM,” says Petrignani, or Ms. P, as her girls call her. “These are where the scholarships are; these are where the jobs are going to be.” The opportunity to compete at the national level boosts every girl’s hopes of getting accepted into college programs that could lead to promising careers in engineering.
On the evening of December 5, while Taveras was napping, the phone rang. The call was from the Posse Foundation, informing Taveras that she was one of ten exceptional students from minority backgrounds selected to attend Lafayette College class of 2021. If she hadn’t seen some of her senior teammates receive college scholarships to pursue engineering degrees when she first joined the Comets as a freshman, Taveras says she wouldn’t have been inspired to chase an engineering dream herself. But after securing a full-ride scholarship to study chemical engineering, Taveras was reluctant to celebrate her achievement. “My mom had to keep reminding me how hard I worked, explaining to me why I wasn’t just lucky,” she says.
With her future at Lafayette locked, Taveras refocused her energy on the team she had grown to love. Leading up to the final regional competition at the end of February, the St. Catharine Comets had accumulated two more trophies, for innovation and for special recognition from the judges. “I think we can really do this,” Petrignani said more frequently during lab sessions, bus rides, and team huddles.
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“We work too hard to mess up,” Petrignani exhorted her team before the second regional competition in January. They had already won the Create Award after competing in 62 matches at the first regional tournament. But before nationals, the team would need to win awards at the three remaining regionals in order to qualify for states. Now competing against several college level teams at Vaughn, the Comets were one of the first to arrive, a habit Petrignani enforces. Arriving early to set up and prepare demonstrates professionalism, she often reminds the girls. After check-in, Petrignani called a team huddle.
Boys from other arriving teams shuffled by with their own boxes of gear. “We have to be on our game and show sportsmanship,” Petrignani said, eyeing the girls, one by one. Asking about a lunch break, checking cell phones, or removing protective goggles would not be tolerated. The roboticists were reminded to tie their hair up, to be on the lookout for judges lurking near their worktable, to stay energized and focused. “Nothing is ever finished being built. Just like a car, our robots need to be maintained.”
It takes about five months to build a robot ready to compete at a VEX competition. And even once the design and programming are working together so that the robot drives smoothly, the design requires constant tweaking and adjustment. During a tournament, the computer program might glitch, a gear-chain might slip, or some inexplicable malfunction might cause the robot simply to freeze in a driving pit during the middle of a match.
During match play on the 12×12 square field, two competing robots will drive in autonomous mode for fifteen seconds before teams step in with remote controlled driving. The object of the match is to score more points than the opponent bot by moving, collecting, and throwing the foam stars and cloth cubes.
Most teams build rectangular and square robots. Petrignani calls them “the boys’ big dump trucks.” But the Comets’ Cobra has an unusual triangular base that allows for more agile maneuvering. Bulkier robots might seem more menacing or impressive, but they’re actually less challenging to build. The smaller the robot, the more intricate the details of the design.
“We like it to be simple and efficient because we don’t want to stress the motors,” team captain Ashley DeLeon says. Cobra is lightweight, inspired by triangular Delta airplane wings, DeLeon explained. And efficiency is not only about design. The smaller sized robot requires fewer building materials. The Comets’ Cobra, subtle, neat, and relatively cheaper to maintain, is also an effective robot. “Triangular designed mechanisms are known for very fast velocity.”
In a field as utilitarian as engineering, design can often feel thoughtless or cold, says St. Catharine Academy principal, Sister Ann Welch. “Especially in medical and housing, you can really see the difference with a female touch, rather than the coldness of just building buildings.” Women engineers are potentially more intentional, more caring in their design ideas and execution, she explains. It’s the difference between building a building and creating a home, or between designing a prosthetic limb and creating an arm.
“There are many things in life that I can tell were designed by men,” Petrignani says before the final regional competition. “At the ladies’ room, if the door swings in, I know it was designed by a man because a woman would never design a door to swing in toward the toilet; it would go out.” It’s in the design subtleties that Petrignani observes a world predominantly catered to men because it was predominantly engineered by men. “So those kinds of things,” she says, “I would like to change.”
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Taveras is summoned back to the building table just as the programmers finish adjusting code. There’s another driving match before the teams pick partners for a two-on-two competition. A boys team, ranked similarly to the Comets, agrees to link up but then changes its mind, so the Comets accept an offer instead from the only other girls team, a Girl Scouts troop. “We girls need to stick together,” Comets builder Angelica Lawton says. The Girl Scouts-Comets team forfeits a match, putting their fate in the hands of the judges who decide subjective prizes. The girls spend the final competition rounds cheering on competitors.
As the awards begin, and the Comets huddle together. Taveras is still in a fold-up chair, hiding the nerves she says she’s feeling. Parents bicker over the competition’s outcome and chatter from other teams sprinkle around the room. When a judge says that the Design Award winner qualifies both for states and nationals, the robo girls of the St. Catharine Comets fall quiet.
“Team #9717,” announces the judge as a uniformly-pitched group scream fills the space. The Comets jump from their seats to receive the trophy. “The first all-girls team to go to nationals!” shouts team captain DeLeon. While scuttling back to her seat, Taveras grins and shakes her head, then embraces three teammates. “I don’t even know,” she repeats, as girls around her pace, yelp, curse, and cry.
“We did it,” Petrignani says, her voice hoarse from a day of coaching. Her face is pink and her eyes well. “We’re going to nationals.” With their uniquely designed robot, the girls of the St. Catharine Comets had just engineered their way to nationals. And when the team embarks on a twenty-hour journey from the Bronx to the national stage in Waukee, Iowa this week, they won’t just be making history at St. Catharine Academy or the VEX U.S. Open; these roboticists are building futures.