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 11 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.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.