Being a high school student is hard enough but imagine the added scrutiny of being the only all female robotics team at competitions and press attention. This is the reality of Team Reign from Holy Names Academy. We sit down with these teenage engineers and talk identity, computer science & the future.
Image Courtesy of Holy Names Robotics Team Reign
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[? Blackalicious rapping Chemical Calisthenics ?]
? Here we go!
? Neutron, proton, mass defect, lyrical oxidation, yo irrelevant
? Mass spectrograph, pure electron volt, atomic energy erupting
? As I get all open on betatron, gamma rays thermo cracking
? Cyclotron and any and every mic
? You’re on trans iridium, if you’re always uranium
? Molecules, spontaneous combustion, pow
? Law of de-fi-nite pro-por-tion, gain-ing weight
? I’m every element of brown
Regina Barber DeGraaff: This is Spark Science. We’re at Geek Girl Con. And I’m here with Team Reign and I’m gonna let them introduce themselves and we’re going to talk about robotics, science communication, and high school.
>> Hi. I’m Addie Boileau. I am the business captain for the robotics team and I am a senior.
>> Hi. I’m Joelle Fitzgerald and I’m the engineering captain at Holy Names and I’m also a senior.
>> Hi. My name is Sorelle Schifferling and I’m on the engineering team and I’m a sophomore.
>> Hi. My name’s Michaela Fennell. I’m on the engineering team. I’m a sophomore, and I’m also the scouting lead this year.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: So, I want to know how this team got started and what you do, and anyone can answer – whoever wants to answer that.
>> So this team was started about three years ago by two girls who did – girls who code – and met all these wonderful other girls who do robotics and were like, “Hey, we should start a team at Holy Names!” So they got together, talked to the computer science teacher and they started the team. I am the only founding member left on the team.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Oh wow. That’s right, you’re going off to college.
>> Yeah. There we go! Yeah! [Laughs.] So, basically, their goal was to create an all-girls robotics team that was very competitive but also, you know, encouraged other women to – other girls – to look at robotics as a viable profession.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Give me, like, kind of an overview and what robotics you’re working on right now and how is that evolved over the three years. I can ask you since you are a founding member.
>> Yeah. So, we’re part of FIRST robotics, which stands For Inspiration Recognition in Science and Technology. So, essentially that program starts January 7th and we have a six-week build season. So, January 7th, we all show up about 5:00 in the morning, and everyone around the world is all watching the exact same prompt release at the same time.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: What!
>> It’s about a 40-page rulebook, give or take, every year. So, every year you build a different robot. You have a different prompt, a different challenge. So this past year we were doing FIRST stronghold, so our goal was to traverse medieval defenses and shoot foam boulders at castles. So, that was basically, that was our prompt this year. So it changes every year. Our prompt for this year is steampunk’d theme and may incorporate a flying element.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Oh my god.
>> As the engineering captain this year, I was on the engineering team last year. So, we did a lot of electrical work and working with tools. And I think my favorite part was learning about all of the tools and using them because I had no interest in this before I joined robotics. So, learning new things definitely intrigued me and pushed me to do more, so like – learning how to use a power drill and a power saw – it’s kind of a cool thing to just blurt out there in a conversation, cuz not a lot of people expect it, especially from girls, so it’s kind of cool.
>> So, last year I was a freshman and I had no clue what robotics was all about. And I was really excited to be on the engineering team and I got to use –
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Why did you join?
>> Oh, I joined because I wanted to be in the engineering department for a career. I’m still kind of choosing. I want to be in the engineering/medical field, so maybe like bioengineering or something like that. And I thought that this would really help me discover what I want to do and I’m really glad I made that choice. And stronghold – participating in that was so fun. The competitions are really fun. You get to meet new people and learn a lot of stuff.
>> I also joined my freshman year, and I did it actually because I was with Sorelle, and we were like, “Hey! We should do this together! And we should work on this together!” And you kind of walk in going, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be so lame. Everybody is going to be so weird!”
>> And I’m not saying that they aren’t weird.
>> But you just kind of come in and you make all of these really great friendships and relationships with all of these really amazing people and I’m just really glad that I joined.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: How did the competition go last January?
>> So, it went really well, first off. [Laughs.]
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Success!
>> Success! Put a lot of time into the robot, you know, it’s 3 hours a day after school. So, a lot of time went into this. Mechanical-wise, we were great. The robot was sound. Unfortunately we did have some programming issues where the –
Regina Barber DeGraaff: You always do!
>> You always do! So, I think we did really well. We made it to the district championship.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Cool!
>> Which was, you know, we got to meet even more teams. Cuz at every competition there’s about 30 teams and then once you get to the district, it’s about 50-60 teams. And these all – you know – they’re huge teams. It’s a lot of pressure. But our robot competed very well. We were, you know, there’s a lot of teams coming up like, “Hey, we want you in an alliance.” We didn’t necessarily do very well –
Regina Barber DeGraaff: So wait, there’s politics in this?
>> Oh yeah! It’s like Survivor. You know the show Survivor?
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Yes. I’m not that old. “Do you know that there’s this thing called a TV?”
Yeah, Survivor. So it is like Survivor, like for reals?
>> Yeah, so you have rankings. So, you have the competition rankings but then teams release their own scouting data so our scouting captain goes around to different teams like, “What are your skills? What can you do?” Then you’re ranked based on your performance, so your points scored per round, your defensive maneuvers per round.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Wow.
>> There’s charts of statistics posted. I know one team got mad at another one so they posted their statistics over their – you know, they covered them up, like, “Ah, those are wrong!”
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Wow! So, I mean do you have like an ambassador then? Is that your – that’s what you are?
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Can you tell me a little bit more? Tell your name one more time.
>> Yeah. So my name is Michaela Fennell and I am the lead scout this year. So I’m working on developing a program for scouting and I’m working back and forth with Addie on this and we’re collaborating. So, what I’m doing is – my goal is to get information about other teams because there are these components where nobody’s robot can do everything. Or, I mean, some really smart teams can, but for the most part, nobody can do everything.
And so while your robot can do X, Y, and Z, you’re going to wanna be friends and be on an alliance with people who maybe can do ABC really well so you can score the most amount of points. And so, maybe you don’t just want to be with a team who is the top ranked but you want to be with somebody who is compatible with your own robot and your own set of skills.
>> Yeah, and so at the end – or kind of the end portion of every competition – is the alliance selection and the alliance portion. The top 8 ranked teams, they kind of stand out on the field and they can select two other teams to participate and be on a team with them. And so they call out other teams and they say, “Okay. We want to be on a team with this person.” And so you don’t know if your team is going to be picked or not and you don’t know who you’re going to be on a team with and there are all of these rules to it.
>> It’s just basically like old-school dodgeball! It’s survival of the fittest. You want to be picked but you want to be picked in a certain order. So, coming up to the competitions, you’re on an alliance with three teams in every single round.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Like already?
>> Yeah. Just going through, and it alternates so you have different teams each round so you can see how well you match up with other teams. You talk to your friends on the other teams, like “Hey we’d be really good together.” So it’s a lot of strategy-wise, and it’s a lot of communication and business, like, “How is this going to work? How can we help you?” And teams who you know are friends or their scouting captions are friends end up being in the alliances more often than not.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Wow.
>> So, there’s different elements just besides robotics.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: So, I have a question. And maybe I’ll ask you two: Is there like a Sith-lord team then? Just an evil team that no one ever works with but they’re so good they don’t have to?
Like, I teach physics and there’s always that one student that’s like, “I don’t have to work with anyone. I’m too smart.” And then, that might not be true, but they were like – they are good workers. You don’t really need to say who, but does that exist?
>> I think there are some personalities that are like, “Oh yeah, I don’t really want to work with you.” Or they’re pretty stubborn. But there is something with FIRST called “gracious professionalism” that encourages everyone to help everyone, where like the winning team wins because they’re a good team, but also because they helped a lot of other people, whether it’s like giving them parts or giving them advice. So they really promote teams other than just your team, like we’re a whole community. We’re not just fighting it out.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Right. The other thing too is that when you’re making these alliances, how many other all-female teams are there? And do you feel you hit barriers because people don’t want to work with you because of stereotypes – that these are just girls?
>> My name is Sorelle Schifferling and Holy Names is actually the only all-girls robotics team in the State of Washington and maybe also Oregon. But I think there are – there’s like one . . . Well, sometimes people underestimate us because we’re girls. So they’re like, “Oh yeah, you did good for a girl.” It’s like, that doesn’t make any sense. We should just all be equal. Gender shouldn’t have a role in this. It should just be you did good as a robotics team. So, that sometimes ticks us off, but there are a lot of good trades because we get a lot of opportunities.
>> So everyone that we work with at FIRST – a lot of our peers – are absolutely amazing people. They are basically gender blind, you know? They’ve grown up. We’re saying “basically.”
Regina Barber DeGraaff: In a society that’s very, very — but they think they’re gender blind. That’s a better way to say it. They “think” it.
>> Yeah. They think they are, and, you know, our peers are really great people and I love the people I do robotics with. I think the adult factor is a little bit different because they’ve been raised with certain standards or they’ve been raised with certain ideas of what should be.
So, it’s on us, as the kids, as the incoming generation, to touch on like, “Hey! This is how we’re different,” you know? So we have to – there might have been a negative experience but we’re gonna build on that and we’re gonna show you that we are more than an all-girls team. We are a robotics team.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Right. I like that. I do want to add to that, when you were talking about generational – I want to say stereotypes that are engrained in their psyche even though they’re trying to fight it. I do a lot of inclusion work where I work with faculty trying to make them more and being like, “Hey! Not every – not all of your students have the same exact upbringing as you” and stuff like that.
And I have them go through this identity wheel and they have to put in military service, education, gender, sex, race, ability, all that kind of stuff. And there was such – there’s a lot of resistance doing that, and you can definitely see that age range. And we did the same thing with TAs, which are in their 20s, and none of them had problems. So, I really, really appreciate that you’re out there trying to push these things because I think there are people my age and older that really, really struggle with identity.
[? J Dilla playing Won’t Do ?]
Regina Barber DeGraaff: If you’re just joining us, this is Spark Science. I’m Regina Barber DeGraaff and today we’re at Geek Girl Con interviewing Team Reign, an all-female high school robotics team.
Is there anything else you wanted to add to that, where interactions on how you try to give that message?
>> So like, because we’re teenagers, we’re at a natural disadvantage when talking to adults.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Really? Some adults, yes.
>> Yeah, well. Some adults, yes. And it makes it a little bit more difficult to be respected or having your opinions taken seriously. So if an adult does cross that line of, “Hey. That wasn’t quite right that you said that,” you have to find a way to combat that in a polite but forceful manner.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: I still haven’t learned that.
>> Yeah. It’s the holy grail, right there!
>> So I think we do a lot of education on, “Hey. This is what to expect from these tournaments. This is what to expect from adults.” Specifically –
Regina Barber DeGraaff: “What if they judge us?”
>> Yeah. “What are we going to do to show that we’re not going to play the all-girl card?” Cuz you get accused of that.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Constantly? [Laughs.]
>> It’s not so much said, but it’s kind of like, “Oh that’s why you . . .” If you win over another team, that might be, you know, “Oh. It’s the all-girls factor.” We don’t want it to be the “all-girls factor” so to do that we have to be a very competitive team with a very good robot.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Yeah.
>> You know, a very strong scouting team, a very strong engineering team, to try to prove to them that we belong here, as opposed to the all-girl card.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Right. I wanted to know if – can you think of a story that you like telling maybe? You tell your friends or you tell your parents – a good story that relates to being on this robotics team. It could be a sad story, it could be a happy story, encouraging. But is there like a short story that you like to tell about being on this team?
>> So my name is Michaela and something that was really important to me was, like I said earlier, is when I walked into robotics, I was terrified. I was with all of these upper classmen and all of these girls who I didn’t know. And I just thought it was going to be this really weird, awkward experience that I was not going to enjoy.
But I walked in on one of the first days of practice, and I see this girl. She is practically standing on a chair, bent over the robot with a drill in her hand. And I just thought that was incredible. And that’s going to be something that I’m probably never going to forget because it was just like, “Wow. If she can do that, I think I can probably do that too.” And it just really impacted and shaped how I played out the rest of that season I think.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: That’s awesome.
>> Just to add onto that story, I was with her too and it was really cool and we got to know that person and she’s really good with tools and went off to a good college. At the time it was like, “Wow. Like, I could never do that.” But then later on in the year we were like, doing more than just that and using power saws and standing on more than just tables and stuff.
So I thought that was really cool. We got a lot of experiences. [Laughs.]
>> At the end of the season, we went to districts as a team, I felt like the most united with my team, like not just through every practice and every day because you do that and you make friendships and stuff. But I feel like going to Portland last year was a really big step in solidifying our team unity because you get to see all of these personalities that you wouldn’t see in school or maybe in practice when we’re really trying to work.
But at a team dinner, it’s like really fun to hear all these stories and hear about their lives outside of robotics, which I think is really impactful and made me want to do the team even more. Just because I got to know people better. Yeah.
>> Yeah. Our first year, we had a very exciting personality in this girl, and she was always dancing around, like playing music, like doing some crazy stuff. And one day she turns to the group and she’s like, “You know, by the end of the year we’re going to be really good friends.” And we all go, “Oh god. Oh dear.” But she ended up being like – I was surrounded by a lot of people who were older than me but I still keep in contact with them. I’m still Snapchatting them every day, like, “How’s college?”
So, you build a lot of support groups with people who are older than you and I really enjoyed that throughout Holy Names. They’ve been through what I’ve been through in high school and they’re more than willing to offer help. So, robotics kind of extends beyond the robot into what other people are doing in their lives, as she was saying.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: That’s awesome. Building communities and building cohorts is basically what keeps underrepresented people into STEM. So I do a lot of work with helping people, underrepresented groups, stay in science, technology, engineering, and math. And studies show over and over and over again, making that community, making that close-knit group of friends, that’s what’s going to help you when you hit that wall over and over again, waiting to quit, because that will happen. It happens to everybody.
So, that’s really great that you have that. I have one last question that I – two last questions – that I ask every interviewer. And one is, if you could have a superpower, what would that be, and what would be your origins story? You’re like, “Oh!”
>> Oh my god!
Think about that. And the second question was, “How is your field, your life, kind of represented in pop culture, and is that bad or good?” So we could talk about how is robotics represented, how is high school life, or science-y high school life, represented in pop culture, and is that accurate, is it not accurate?
>> Alright. My name is Addie Boileau. And if I could have a superpower, I would definitely go with Green Lantern’s superpower. You know, you gotta have a power ring. “Brightest day, blackest night,” you know, the whole -ish.
>> Yeah! I love DC comics. The only issue with Green Lantern is it’s green. I really don’t like the color green.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: There’s other colors!
>> So I – Yeah! There is other colors. I really like – I think the Blackest Night series, you know, like they have the black power ring. I really enjoy wearing black. I’m wearing all black right now.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Okay. We’re going to take a picture. We’re gonna share that with our listeners.
>> So I would definitely go with that as my superpower.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Okay. And what would be your origin story then? How did you end up as a Green Lantern that shade?
>> “That shade.”
Regina Barber DeGraaff: That core of people.
>> I kind of like my own personal origins story. You know, just me! This is who I am. You know, I went, I grew up, I went to a catholic middle school, I ended up going to an all-girls academy, and then suddenly there was this power ring and I’m like, just sitting in the lawn, I’m like, “Oh god. Here we go!” [Laughs.]
Regina Barber DeGraaff: You’re about to roll over it with a lawn mower.
>> Yeah! Exactly! I was like, drop my book on it, like “Oh whoops!”
Regina Barber DeGraaff: That’s awesome.
>> I’d probably trip over it, knowing me. I’d be like, “Oh! That’s a power ring!”
Regina Barber DeGraaff: And another interview!
>> My name is Joelle and I think my superpower would be shapeshifting, something like that.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Mystique. Is my daughter out there?
>> That would be super cool to just turn into something else, cuz’ you always wonder what it would be like to be a dog or something.
>> Or Jennifer Lawrence!
>> Or, like a different person, having a different personality, that would be so cool.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: So what would be your origin story?
>> I think maybe going to a concert and touching Beyonce and being like, “What!”
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Then turning into her!
>> Yeah! And then realizing that I can turn into anyone.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: That’s very X-Men.
>> So, I’m Sorelle Schifferling, once again, and I don’t know if you’d count this as a superpower but I would want to know the art of ninjutsu from Naruto. And my origin story would be me sitting in my room, reading Naruto, the manga, and then all of a sudden I get transported in and then I have to live there in the Hidden Leaf Village.
>> My name is Michaela and I think if I had a superpower it would be telepathy, like the ability to read minds. I have so many questions! And I always have so many questions for people and I know that it gets to a point where it’s like, “Oh my gosh. Will this girl stop asking questions?”
And so if I could just read people’s minds, like I wouldn’t have to ask questions all the time. So I think it would be really useful. And I think my origins story would be something like – I really relate to the Spiderman origin story. I would definitely be bit by a radioactive spider. It could be like a radioactive chicken peck or something.
[? J Dilla playing Won’t Do ?]
Regina Barber DeGraaff: If you’re just joining us, this is Spark Science and today we’re talking about robots and high school with Team Reign.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: So just that last question, how is your interests, your passions, and your being, your identity, represented in pop culture? And how do you like that? Is it good or bad?
>> I think through a lot of movies, or something, you always see the STEM nerdy girl and you’re like, “Oh, she’s kind of weird and no one likes her.” But then when you go to robotics and see our team or like all these girls that are in STEM, it’s not really the same. I feel like we’re pictured out-of-the-loop or not popular, per se.
>> Darcy from Thor.
>> Yeah! It’s kind of like, nerdy with glasses, doesn’t do their hair. I feel like we’re all regular teenage girls but we like science and math and we like challenges and we like engineering and we like programming and we like business. So, it’s kind of differently portrayed in media or stuff like that.
>> I don’t know, I found in my life, in middle school I was very shy, very nerdy, like very into myself. Yeah!
Regina Barber DeGraaff: That could be taken many ways!
>> Yeah, exactly, exactly! And I found that to communicate with people I had to start understanding what they’re into, which I don’t necessarily think is the best thing, you know? I mean, it definitely helped me branch out. Learning about pop culture – “Oh, now I have a conversation with anybody because of it.”
But at the same time, I definitely relate with that person who has no idea what’s going on because that’s who I used to be. And the more I go away from that, I’m not sure if that’s necessarily a good thing. You know? So I think it’s finding the balance in robotics between being the pop culture savvy and still embracing those parts of yourself that are very STEM related.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Yeah.
>> Well I think it’s kind of funny that I’m in robotics. There’s always that stereotypical Asian who’s really smart and geeky and, I don’t know, even though I’m in robotics, I feel like I still deviate from that type of norm, because I’m not that smart. I do have glasses though. It should be portrayed in a different way. There can be cool people and it doesn’t even have to be just Asians. There could be cool Asians who do robotics and they don’t have to be smart. They can be kind of dumb. It’s kind of cool though because people think I’m smart, but –
>> I’m really into STEM. I’m really, really into STEM. I spend a ton of my time working in, kind of, STEM environments and thinking about it and looking things up and doing research. And there’s just – I feel like it’s really hard to find female role models. And I have met some incredibly women who do really inspire me, but it’s just so weird because . . . In pop culture, you just don’t see a lot of it.
And I do have and I do see strong female women who just empower me and I think they’re incredible. But it’s just, I don’t see a lot of who I am. I’m really into science but I also do things like cheerleading and people wouldn’t expect that out of me. When I talk to people, they think that I’m just this girl who’s like super self-absorbed and super weird and nerdy and into STEM, but I have other parts of me too and I don’t think that people realize that sometimes.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Yeah. I mean, I liked all of your comments and us talking before about identity is more complex and it’s not one note. But us in the inclusion in STEM field, we talk about intersectionality a lot and we talk about how you can be a woman and you can like cheerleading and you can like physics.
For me, I’m Asian too, but my dad’s Mexican so I didn’t get straight As and they’d be like, “Oh, that’s why you get Bs.” Like, horrible, horrible racism. But anyway, you can be both things. You can be many, many different things and I think that’s another thing that your generation is much better at embracing than mine.
Is there anything you would like to add to this interview that you wanted to add about your team, or anything?
>> Yeah, I just wanted to say that everybody on our team and everybody who has been on our team is so incredible. And just for coming and participating and being active within our little community is just an incredible thing, and I would encourage anybody out there to go and to join a robotics team or start one or just throw yourself into whatever life gives you.
>> Going back to gender roles, I took psyche 101 this summer, and they were talking about how there’s this identity test. I don’t know if it’s the same one you’re talking about. But there would be like, “A girl does this” or something, and it’d be like a kitchen. There’d just be so many options like cooking in the house or engineering and then there’d be the same with men and a lot of people would choose the stereotypical, “Oh. They’d probably be in the kitchen,” and I honestly think that’s just not right.
And robotics really helps people think differently. Girls can do engineering. And I think that really helps. The more girls who participate in that can definitely change this generation and change how they’re thinking so we’re just portrayed as, “We’re just going to stay in the kitchen and do work and the men are out there doing work and we’re taking care of children.” That’s not how we should be portrayed.
>> Yeah. So if you guys are interested – the viewers out there – in joining a robotics team, you can go to FIRSTInspires.org. There’s a whole bunch of information for middle school teams that work with LEGOS up to our level, which is FRC, where we build the big six-foot tall robots. Yeah, that was our first year. And then also, if you want to contact us about having us mentor you or speak at a middle school, we’d be more than happy to come out. I’m Addie Boileau, business captain, email@example.com.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: It’ll be included.
>> Yeah, that’ll be good!
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Thank you so much for talking with me. And this has been really enlightening for me because it’s good for me to talk to people that aren’t 20.
I teach at college. Anyway, thank you so much. Have a great panel.
Team Reign: Thank you! Thank you for having us.
Regina Barber DeGraaff: Thank you for joining us. We just interviewed Team Reign at Seattle’s Geek Girl Con. If you missed any of the show, go to our website SparkScienceNow.com or go to KMRE.org and click on the podcast link. Today’s episode was recorded on location in Seattle, Washington. Our producer is Regina Barber DeGraaff. The engineer for today’s show is Natalie Moore. Special thanks to the organizers of Geek Girl Con.
This is Spark Science and we’ll be back again next week. Listen to us on 102.3 FM in Bellingham or KMRE.org, streaming on Sundays at 5pm, Thursdays at noon , or Saturdays at 3pm. If there’s a science idea you’re curious about, send us an email or post a message on our Facebook page, Spark Science.
This is an all volunteer-run show, so if you want to help us out, go to SparkScienceNow.com and click on donate. Our theme music is “Chemical Calisthenics” by Blackalicious and “Wondaland” by Janelle Monáe. Our feature song today was J Dilla “Won’t Do.”
[? Blackalicious rapping Chemical Calisthenics ?]
? Lead, gold, tin, iron, platinum, zinc, when I rap you think
? Iodine nitrate activate
? Red geranium, the only difference is I transmit sound
? Balance was unbalanced then you add a little talent in
? Careful, careful with those ingredients
? They could explode and blow up if you drop them
? And they hit the ground
[End of podcast.]