By: Shannon Mann
Fourteen young women from Johnston County took home top honors at a recent FIRST Robotics off-season competition held in Cary, N.C. FRC Team 6004 f(x) Robotics, a community robotics team based at Smithfield- Selma Senior High School, was named overall grand champion at the Doyenne Inspiration Competition held on Oct. 23, 2021.
The all-girl competition is about empowering young female and non-binary students through FIRST Robotics to become engineers, computer scientists and STEM leaders. Marie Hopper, president of FIRST North Carolina, told the crowd at the competition that she is often asked why she encourages an all-girl competition.
“Our young women need to step up to be heard, and to be strong,” Hopper said. “Less than 18% of the STEM workforce is female, and by 4th grade most girls think they aren’t good enough to do STEM. Doyenne is here to give them an opportunity.”
Hopper went on to share statistics of female participation in FIRST NC over the past few years. For years, girls made up 30-32% of participants across the state; however in 2019 with the start of the first Doyenne Inspiration competition that number soared to 40%. As teams across the state, nation and globe see a resurgence in activity since the pandemic, f(x) Robotics is boasting more female participation this year then any of its past years combined.
“We have 20 girls registered to our team this year. That’s 50% of our team,” said Troy Brindle, volunteer head coach and owner of the Gilded Pear in Smithfield, N.C. “In the past we were lucky to get three. It’s great to see so many of them getting involved and wanting to learn more about this program.”
Elle Stephenson is a 9th grader at Smithfield-Selma Senior High School, and a first-time participant on the robotics team where she is learning to code the robot and work with its electrical components.
“When I was younger I wasn’t attracted to this kind of stuff because the boys always turned me away from it,” Stephenson said. “But on this team we support each other, and I love that there are so many girls.”
During Doyenne Inspiration Stephenson served as part of the robot pit crew helping to fix problems that arose and transporting the robot to and from game play.
During the competition half the team worked in the pits making last minute mechanical repairs or trouble-shooting mechanical issues that happened during game play, updating or fixing code, and serving as part of the drive and operations team during live matches.
Kaitlyn Nolte, a freshman in Johnston County’s Early College Academy’s engineering program, served as the lead driver during final championship matches. Nolte isn’t new to the FIRST family though having been part of the only all-girl FIRST Lego League Robotics team in Johnston County for the past two years.
“My time in FLL taught me so many things that contributed to my experience at Doyenne,” Nolte said. “During FLL, I learned how to work well with others as a team, effective problem solving, presentation skills, confidence while speaking in public, and so much more. All of these skills correlate closely with what you need to do in FRC and at the competitions.”
Nolte said continuing with robotics in high school was important to her because she sees herself pursuing it in college, and as a possible career. She added that while she enjoys all the aspects of robotics, she also enjoys the social aspects.
“I loved meeting all the girls from the other teams. At competition it is really a team effort,” said Nolte. “Everyone has a role.”
With half the team in the pits and on the field of play, the other half served a vital role in marketing and as scouts. Scouts watched all the matches to take notes about different team’s capabilities and strategies on, and off, the field. After qualifying match rounds ended, scouts collected their intelligence to work with the pit team on making final decisions for which teams should be on their alliance going into championship rounds.
Rebekah Jenkins, a senior at Smithfield-Selma Senior High School and the f(x) Robotics award chair, has served f(x) Robotics as a scout for four years and knows the importance of the role to winning game play.
“The ability to look at others and see how their strengths and weaknesses compliment yours is one of the most important skills at a competition. Working with other teams is a big part of tournaments, and being able to pick which team will help you get further in the competition is highly important to success,” said Jenkins. “This is why scouting is necessary. The act of collecting data about other teams and analyzing it helps determine which teams to choose and which not to, which can determine your ultimate success or failure.”
With a majority of the girls being new to robotics the competition started out a bit rough as mechanical problems plagued the team in its early matches.
“We were lucky to have a great alliance with the girls of Triple Strange Team 1533,” said Sloan Mann, a home school student who works on f(x) Robotics digital animation team, and who served as the team’s alliance captain for the competition. “We had a dead battery and couldn’t move, but they pushed us into an area where we could score some points and that helped our alliance win its first match.”
With morning matches putting the team in 8th place, the girls buckled down and unleashed their robot’s full potential completing several difficult technical moves in the afternoon. Their multiple double and triple climbs led them into 2nd place by the end of qualifying matches and made them one of four alliance captains going into the championship rounds.
“We knew we needed a good final alliance to win,” said Mann. “We picked Team 3737 Roto Raptors from Goldsboro because we had worked with them before and we knew how good they were. All the team captains also decided that we would all pick a defensive robot to put on our alliance. We selected Team 9998 Slice with girls from Fuquay-Varina. We all worked really well together.”
In the end, f(x) Robotics made excellence alliance picks because they went undefeated in the final three championship matches and won the overall competition.
“Doyenne was a great learning experience for me,” Nolte said. “I would say to a middle school girl thinking she cannot do STEM to not be intimidated by the field because it is male dominated. Always be open to new experiences even if it may be scary at first.”
Jenkins added, “I’ve come incredibly far since I first joined robotics, and I’ve been fortunate enough to watch many other girls come just as far if not farther. FIRST proves that girls are just as capable of doing STEM as anyone else. You’ll never know how far it’ll take you until you do it.”
The girls of Team 6004 f(x) Robotics have dedicated sponsors for their #FIRSTLikeAGirl initiatives and receive financial support from Caterpillar of Clayton, Horizon Family Medicine, Artmosphere, Mast Law Firm, Clayton Women in Networking and SheCar. To find out more about f(x) Robotics or to see their #FIRSTLikeAGirl resources for middle-school aged girls visit: frc6004.com or follow them on Facebook @FRC6004