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Rookie all-girls robotics team put Frank Sobotra to the test

The students and their coach yelled and leaped for joy when Frank Sabotra climbed a rope and turned on a light just before a buzzer sounded.

Frank is a robot, built and programmed by 10 students who are part of Ursuline Academy's robotics team — the Ursuline Bearbotics — the only all-girls team in Missouri to compete in the FIRST Robotics Championshp at America's Center in Downtown St. Louis April 26-29. The Bearbotics earlier earned distinction as FIRST's top rookie team in the St. Louis Regional in March at Chaifetz Arena, qualifying for the championship with 407 teams, including 18 from Missouri and five from the St. Louis area.

Frank, a box-like mix of metal and wires with padded bumpers, participated in 10 preliminary rounds of competition. He hit a snag on the first day when he crashed into another robot frantically making its rounds in "the pit" to perform tasks. But in this round on April 28 and guided by one of the team members, Frank performed flawlessly, sending sprockets up a path to turn rotors, shooting balls and climbing the rope.

Though the competition is important, the experience with teams from across the world is much more comprehensive, said freshman Amanda Kohne, safety leader for the Ursuline team. "It's a great opportunity," Kohne said. "I met people from Quebec, Philadelphia ... We came here as a family of 10 and left as a family of 400."

Senior Emma Jane Douthitt, mechanical leader of the team, applied the skills her grandfather taught her about working on cars. As a member of the Bearbotics team, she learned a lot more, however. "I used to not be very good at directions, and now I am," said Douthitt, who is interested in studying mechanical engineering at Western Kentucky University, where she'll attend in the fall.

Senior Claire Roberson, assistant team leader, followed FIRST Competition for a few years and wanted to start a team at Ursuline. Her chance came when Shane Hanson was hired to teach physics and engineering. He had been a mentor for FIRST at another school. The new FIRST club at Ursuline has a good foundation despite being in its first year, Roberson said.

Roberson gained confidence in using tools, especially power tools, and learned electrical wiring. She was "astounded" when Frank worked when they tested him. "To see that something we built could work and we could drive was so cool," Roberson said.

And when she learned her team was moving on from regionals to the championships against teams from around the country, "I was so happy I practically ran down to receive our award," said Roberson, who plans to major in aerospace engineering at Wichita State University in Kansas. "This really confirmed and solidified that this is what I want to do."

She'd like Ursuline's success to inspire other Catholic girls schools to form teams. "It's not just a man's world. Women can do anything they want. They can be engineers, mechanics, whatever they want with their lives regardless of stereotypes," she said.

The teams at various schools help each other. Ursuline relied on assistance from Rosati-Kain and Nerinx Hall high schools in particular prior to the championship and other schools while there.

Under strict rules, limited resources and a six-week time limit, teams of students are challenged to raise funds, design a team "brand," hone teamwork skills, and build and program industrial-size robots. It's considered as close to real-world engineering as a student can get. Volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team. Scott Edmunds, an engineer at Boeing and dad of one of the team members, helped guide the Bearbotics.

Junior Madison Yakstis is the team leader. Other members are freshmen Kelly Zipfel, Elizabeth Edmunds and Mary Weissert, sophomores Anna Gonsalves and Libby Trn and junior Caeley Kates.

The students' joy when Frank performed his tasks made the time and effort worthwhile. "The thing I enjoy most is their excitement," Hanson said. 

Ursuline Academy earned the Rookie All-Star Award during the St. Louis Regional FIRST Robotics Competition at Chaifetz Arena in March.

The award recognizes a strong partnership effort between students and sponsors and their understanding and promotion of the mission of FIRST to inspire students to enjoy and learn more about science and technology. The team was interviewed by the regional judges, designed and created a robot appropriate to the game's challenges, and, based upon students' leadership, vision and spirit, qualified as a "Chairman's Award team in the making."

Inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1989. Based in Manchester, N.H., FIRST seeks to build self-confidence, knowledge and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology and engineering. With support from more than 200 Fortune 500 companies and more than $50 million in college scholarships, the not-for-profit organization hosts the FIRST Robotics Competition for students in grades 9-12; FIRST Tech Challenge for grades 7-12; FIRST LEGO League for grades 4-8; and FIRST LEGO League Jr. for grades K-4. The main sponsors of Ursuline's team were Monsanto, Boeing, Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri and the Mercy Health Foundation St. Louis.

To learn more about FIRST, go to www.firstinspires.org 

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