- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 19, 2016

WACO, Texas (AP) - When 17-year-old Alicia Martinez was a freshman in high school, she wanted to venture out of her comfort zone and find something that would push her to face an intense shyness and a stutter, she said.

The Waco Tribune-Herald (https://bit.ly/2e1JE7D ) reports at the time, Rapoport Academy had a limited number of clubs for students, and she was skilled in reading, history and art but had never tried science and math beyond the classroom, Martinez said. Now she is one of four captains of three local robotics teams breaking the glass ceiling and putting Waco on the map when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math fields in their schools.

For the first time this year, all three Waco-based teams that compete in the internationally-recognized First Robotics Competition are led by girls, and they have worked the past several months to bring the competition to the city.

Usually, the teams have to travel to Dallas or Houston to compete, but with determination, well-crafted proposals and research, the Rapoport Academy, Harmony Science Academy and Girl Scout Troop 3994 managed to bring a regional round of the FRC to the area for the first time this spring. At each competition, teams are asked to build an industrial-sized robot with limited resources in six weeks to then compete in a field game against other competitors. The Brazos Valley Regional competition will be March 28 to April 2 at University High School.

As Martinez learned more about the process of building a robot and the different aspects of joining a competitive team through the next three years, she saw the captain position as something to strive for, she said.

“I thought, ‘I want to make it to that point one day, mainly because I want to see if I can do it,’ ” Martinez said. “I knew I was going to have to learn a lot of new skills to do that. That happened pretty much in the span of a week, and I was like ‘I’m diving into this 100 percent.’ So I did and I kind of made up a position for myself: assistant to the captain. Whenever captains had meetings, I thought ‘I’m going to be there even though I’m not captain.’ I inserted myself into the position I had my freshman year, and that was probably the biggest stepping stone to get where I am now.”

The position is also her first major leadership role, she said. Similar to that of the other team captains, her goal is to change the gender gap in STEM fields, she said. In 2012, only one in every seven engineers was a woman, according to Forbes Magazine. Four years have passed, and that gap persists. Women earn less than half of the undergraduate degrees in STEM-related fields, according to a study the University of Washington released last week.

At Rapoport, the interest in robotics has changed so much the academy recently developed a middle school club, and the high school club has increased from fewer than 10 students to about 30 active members, with about half of them being girls, Rapoport STEM coordinator Clay Springer said. Springer also serves as the team’s robotics coach and worked closely with the Harmony and Girl Scout coaches to support their teams’ efforts, he said.

“I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for Waco that took a very stressful last six months to happen,” Springer said about the FRC event. “I don’t think it would have ever happened without the other teams as well… . It’s just going to bring light to the whole program and what’s going on in the different schools and how together, Waco robotics is a big deal because of the companies we have here and the support of the schools.”

Though the Girl Scout and Rapoport teams have been led by girls in the past, this is the first year for Harmony, with 17-year-old senior Nadia Ruiz at its helm. Ruiz found her calling in ninth grade when she and a few friends joined the team, she said. Until then, science wasn’t something she was interested in at all, she said. Ruiz started helping the team manage the business element of the competition and joined the engineering side her sophomore year.

Because the closest competitions were two to three hours away, the three teams joined forces to find a solution.

“That was our big problem. We were trying to get people to understand what our competitions were,” Girl Scouts co-captain Colleen Goggin, 15, said. “When they’d ask where it would be, we’d say we’re in different cities, and they would tell us they would be more interested if it was more local. That’s what really pushed us to have more local competitions and why all of us worked together to drive FRC to Waco. With this, we hope we’ll get a lot more kids involved, especially girls because then they’ll see what we do.”

The girls first went to the Greater Waco Sports Commission board to convince the board members robotics was indeed a sport and would appeal to the Waco community, they said. The commission works to identify and attract new sporting events to enhance the quality of life in the county. With the commission’s help, the girls presented a proposal to the FRC to get the stamp of approval, they said.

“I was so proud. I’ve been in the FRC team I’m in right now for three years, and every year we constantly talk about the amount of money that gets taken out of our budget for traveling, hotels and food just leaving Waco to go to Dallas or to San Antonio,” Girl Scouts co-captain Marissa Anderson, 17, said.

From here, the teams will focus fundraising, marketing the competition for the next six months and preparing to make their competition robots. Eight FRC teams have already signed up, Springer said.

For Martinez, once the competition wraps up, her focus will shift toward her goal to eventually work in the social work field, the senior said. Though robotics competitions and social work may not seem to have any connection, her role has captain has taught her otherwise, she said.

“It’s a big jump from robotics, but when I first joined, I knew I wanted to be a captain because I wanted to see if I could do it myself. Then later on came the factor of I want to make sure this increases, so people feel like they’re able to do this,” Martinez said.

“With social work, it’s just helping get to a place where they can better themselves without having to rely on someone. I didn’t really link the two together until I started thinking how I now have all these skills from robotics, like business, marketing and people skills in general.”


Information from: Waco Tribune-Herald, https://www.wacotrib.com

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