Duchesne Robotics Team Gears Up for Competition

Duchesne Robotics Team Gears Up for Competition

Iron Plaid, one of the only all-female robotics teams in the nation who compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition, hopes to advance to the World Championships.

Whether they are in the stands or in the pit, the team from Duchesne Academy is distinctly recognizable at a FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) event. Their bold plaid skirts and pants — a nod to the Catholic school uniform — are unique among the hundreds of robotics teams from around the world who compete with FRC. But even more defining than their unique apparel, is the fact that the Iron Plaid team is one of the only all-female FRC robotics teams. There are only three all-female teams in the state of Texas and fewer than 100 in the entire world.

"STEM is known for being male-dominated, and unfortunately, high school robotics is no exception," said senior Sarah Swackhamer, the president of Iron Plaid. "Being on Iron Plaid, however, I have always felt accepted and supported by my peers. The team environment is really positive and has helped me grow as an engineer, leader, and individual. Being an all-girl team is especially fun at competitions, though; we always hand out skirts, and it's cool to see guys and girls alike wearing them around."

FRC is an international high school robotics competition that gives students real-world engineering experience, and combines the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology. Following an event in March, the Iron Plaid team will next compete in the Lone Star South Regional in Pasadena from April 5 - 7. If they qualify, the team will move on to the World Championship held from April 18 - 21 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.

Last year, Iron Plaid competed in the FRC World Championships, recording seven wins and three losses in the qualification round and advancing to the quarterfinal round in their division before being eliminated. Additionally, Iron Plaid was the captain of their alliance in the competition, meaning that were among the top eight teams in the division. The team hopes to have a strong showing again this year.

"Through our interactions with judges, mentors, and peers from other teams, we help to change the culture of FIRST for the better and demonstrate the amazing things women in STEM can achieve," said Swackhamer. "It's awesome to have that bigger mission of female empowerment alongside our day-to-day mission of building robots."

Since its inception and evolution at Duchesne, the mission of the robotics program has been to create future female leaders in the science, technology, math, and engineering fields through the power of education and involvement. The Iron Plaid slogan is "empowering girls with power tools, one robot at a time." Today, approximately 10% of the Upper School student body is part of the program.

"One of the great things that's come from Iron Plaid is being able to look at myself and see what I've done over the past few years and be like 'whoa, I'm turning into those girls that I looked up to so much when I was in middle school,'" said sophomore Sofia Varner, who first learned about Iron Plaid while she was still a Middle School student at Duchesne.

Although the current incarnation of the team was founded in 2009, the history of the school's robotic program dates back to 2000, when dedicated students joined forces with faculty members and several NASA engineers to form the initial team. That inaugural season saw the team compete as the only-all girl team in the local region and they were honored with the Rookie Award for their spirit and hard work. Since that time, Duchesne's robotics team has evolved and continued to grow. They have competed in five FRC World Championships, and have won a slew of different awards based on robot performance, pit safety, and the team's outreach programs.

"Throughout middle school, I was on a co-ed robotics team and I was the only girl," said Lena Shadow, a sophomore who is considering a career in biomedical engineering. "But then when I came to high school, I joined Iron Plaid. It hasn't just influenced me in terms of interest in STEM careers, but it has also taught me skills in leadership, team building, and independence."

A number of Duchesne alumnae have taken amazing paths after graduation due in part to the robotics program. From studying chemical, biological, and computer engineering at major American universities, to careers at institution like NASA and large energy companies, Iron Plaid alums leave Duchesne with the skills, confidence, and motivation needed to become responsible, active and engaged citizens of a changing world. Currently, 90% of Iron Plaid alums who are college undergraduates are studying, or plan to study, a STEM field as either a major or minor.

Former Iron Plaid member Christine Gebara '12 now works as a mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She attributes her success to being a part of the robotics team.

"I can directly trace the path to my current career starting at Duchesne and Iron Plaid specifically," said Gebara.