Central High School recently sent the first all-girls team to ever compete in the VEX Robotics Competition, now in its fourth year.
You wouldn't have known it was the girls' first showing — they placed third out of 10 Hamilton County high school teams.
"I've never built a robot before and I saw the boys do it, so we put a girls team together," said Alexis Massengale, who piloted CHS' robot in its task to see which could move the most balls into a designated space.
"It was a really great experience for my first time," Alexis said.
To compete, teams have to build a robot that can move tennis, golf and pingpong balls for varying point values into a 10-by-10 arena. The engineering challenge is to program the robot to be maneuverable by remote control to complete the task.
"The robot has eight minutes to get as many balls as possible inside the arena, and then it has to be navigated over a bridge into the arena," explained Chip Strickland, a STEM teacher at Central who coached the team.
Alexis and fellow teammates Nia Townsend, Madison Brooks, Peyton Anderson and team captain Chelsea Childress have been working since the beginning of the school year on their robot.
"People would go in every day and see what they could do," Chelsea said. "Most of us have extracurricular stuff to do after school, but during the school day we can work on it."
Strickland said it's a continual process of seeing a problem and figuring out how to fix it. Even right before the competition, the girls were working to adjust things, he said.
"To do something extra after school, to do something for themselves — that's motivation," said Strickland. " It gives high schools a platform in academics to promote excellence other than in athletics."
The time the girls put into their robot paid off at the competition, but will pay dividends beyond that one day.
"They'll be back next year, and they know what improvements to make," Strickland said.
It could also help to close the workforce gap between men and women in careers related to science, technology, engineering and math.
After the competition, the teams were given a tour of the Chattanooga State Center for Advanced Technology and the Center for Engineering, Technology and Applied Science to see other aspects of engineering technology. Some of the highlighted areas were 3-D printing, nuclear simulation and welding.
"I do want to work in the STEM field," Chelsea said. "I'm not 100 percent sure what exactly what I want to do, but I have always liked science and math."
Email Heather Newlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.