Meet San Antonio's All-Girl Robotics Team Shaking up the STEM World

click to enlarge The IWHS Shambots gearing up for a practice run with "Brad" and "Chad." - LYANNE A. GUARECUCO
Lyanne A. Guarecuco
The IWHS Shambots gearing up for a practice run with "Brad" and "Chad."

On Ash Wednesday, a group of students — all girls — geared up their two robots in a small classroom in a subterraneous wing at Incarnate Word High School. The school’s two robotics teams, the Shambots and Shambots 2.0 (after their school mascot, a shamrock), are preparing to compete in a regional robotics competition this weekend with their two robots, “Brad” and “Chad,” which look like miniature space rovers made up of complex metal and wiring components on wheels.

The two Shambot teams, made up of 23 girls total, have been working on their robots all year in preparation for this weekend's regional competition in Austin. But this isn't their first rodeo, and they'd like to keep their streak going: Last year, the girls advanced all the way to the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) World Championship in Houston, where they competed with robotics teams from Australia to Romania.

For the past six years, the Shambots have shaken up the local world of robotics by dominating with their all-female presence. They're also part of a bigger organization called FIRST, which seeks to inspire young kids to be “science and technology leaders and innovators.” And though the fact that it’s an all-girls team is “somewhat by default,” their supervisor, Peggy McChesney says, (IWHS is an all-girls school), that’s not the point. She credits their success to the girls’ robotics abilities, and how well they are able to play with other teams.

At regionals, the girls will be up against other teams, most of which are co-ed but still largely made up of boys. But the Shambots are hoping to change the perception that the world of STEM (short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is just for the opposite sex — a shift McChesney says she’s already begun to notice.

“We’re seeing more and more girls at different competitions, and more and more all-girls teams,” McChesney said, who’s been working with the Shambots since the team’s conception in 2012.

In regionals, the Shambots will have ten minutes to display their team accomplishments in front of a panel, and two minutes and thirty seconds to show off what their robots can do. The first thirty seconds are autonomous: the robots are able to show off pre-programmed skills the girls themselves have coded.

Then, for the next 2 minutes, the robot is in the hands of a “driver,” who has to score as many points as possible by guiding the robot to stack cubes in designated columns, or pick up a toy (a small, yellow plastic man) and dropping it into hopscotch-like squares mapped out on the floor with designated points. (The further the robot’s arm is able to extend in order to drop the man, the more points the move is worth.) The challenge changes every year — previously, robots have had to push a bowling ball, or manage to do a pull-up.

click to enlarge LYANNE A. GUARECUCO
Lyanne A. Guarecuco

“We’re all super excited, obviously nervous. I have total confidence in our drivers and our coaches. It’s just up to Brad not to freak,” senior Eleanor Palmer said.

Their robots names have silly backstories: Brad is named after the Liberty Mutual insurance commercial about a totaled car (named Brad). Chad, on the other hand, is inspired by a frat boy who “has his quirks.”

“Especially when programming, you have a lot of issues, but we like to attribute it to [Chad’s] personality,” senior programmer Kyra White said. “Sometimes he makes poor decisions, such as getting drunk, and not being able to discern colors to put blocks into a slot, and sometimes not even being able to balance. Or he’ll do just do erratic motions— so, drunken frat boy. That’s Chad.”

Though they’ve spent countless hours working on their robots, the machines are only a part of what the Shambots have set out to do as a school organization. Their motto, “gracious professionalism” is scribbled in big letters on the whiteboard of their robotics room, and it’s one the girls take very seriously. In competition, they’ll present a binder chock full of achievements, including flyers, emails, photos, and biographies, demonstrating how they’ve worked beyond just building robots to help their community.

“A lot of times, if there’s a problem, [the Shambots] will be like ‘we’ll help!’ and we’ll make all the resources needed to take care of that problem,” Palmer said.

Palmer has been a Shambot since her freshman year, following in the footsteps of her older sister, who was part of the original IWHS robotics team.

“At first I thought, you’re just building a robot. But then I saw it was a lot more than that,” Palmer said. “I almost thought it was like a sport, where you’re just in this to win. But then it was like, you’re actually in this to learn so much more and do so much more.”

The Shambots have held a campus food and clothing drive for people impacted by Hurricane Harvey, in which they loaded up three trucks of supplies including food, water and baby diapers. They’ve also held a toy and book drive to donate gifts to a local battered women’s shelter.

click to enlarge A few of the Shambots. - LYANNE A. GUARECUCO
Lyanne A. Guarecuco
A few of the Shambots.

For some of the girls, the experience has helped them make many friends, and the time commitment has given them the opportunity to learn how much they have in common with each other.

“Definitely the closer it gets to a competition, the more your life absorbs robotics,” Nadia Bibles, a sophomore who will take over as lead programmer of her team next year, told the Current. “This club, the team — you make so many friends. Everybody becomes so close by the end of the year, and you bond over the weirdest things.”

For others, the robotics team has provided their first experience in the STEM world.

“It’s a great first experience, especially if you want to get into engineering,” Taylor DeSalme, a student and aspiring mechanical aerospace engineer, told the Current.

The Shambots are also known for helping out rookie teams, who sometimes join them on their Saturday building sessions, meaning their footprint in robotics stems far beyond their own machines. In competition, they say, people will usually direct anyone missing nuts or bolts to “the girls in green,” who are always willing to share their knowledge and help.

“For me, it kind of restores faith in humanity in that, because we are the future generation, we’re learning the skills required to not only be good in business, but to go out into the world to focus on professionalism and camaraderie,” White said. “Everyone has different talents and skills, and you really need that diverse mindset.”
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