Blazing a Trail, Earning Respect and Showing the Boys that They’re Very Capable

An increased focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) disciplines in schools will ensure that the U.S. will remain competitive in a rapidly changing global marketplace however the demographic of those involved is starting to change.

Long dominated by men, young women are increasingly entering and excelling in these fields and they’re not willing to settle for support roles nor will they allow gender bias to slow them down.  In South Jersey there is an all female team called “Robochicks,” closer to home, Suffern High School continues to attract young women who make important contributions to the team.

The Suffern High School Robotics team has advanced to the FIRST(For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics World Championships in Detroit later this month for the fifth time in their eleven years of existence.

Just making it to the World Championships puts them in the top 2% of Robotics teams in the world.  The handful of both male and female students on the Robotics team who graduate each year are offered hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships to the top schools in the nation.

33% of those traveling to Detroit on April 23rd are young women and they made it with another young woman at the helm, first year coach and Suffern High School teacher Diane Tual has quickly learned the ropes and guided the team since the school year began.

“Historically women have contributed to some of our country’s greatest technological accomplishments only to be overshadowed by their male counterparts based on the lottery of birth.  Robotics is a field that requires creative problem solving.  Having women on the team is invaluable, they are creative, organized and work tirelessly on all aspects of the robot” said Suffern High School teacher and first year Robotics coach Diane Tual.   “Robotics allows them to see that they are not defined by their gender but rather by what they are able to achieve and contribute as part of a successful team.  I would like to see more women take up programming and become more involved all aspects of engineering and show society that gender is not a barrier to success.”

The season starts in September when the challenge is revealed to more than 5,000 teams worldwide.  It’s up to each individual team to figure out what their robot must be capable of achieving, designing the robot, prototyping, testing, fabricating custom parts using 3-D printers and CNC machines, building, programing and testing their creation. This entire process must be documented and presented to teams of judges.

If that isn’t enough, a Robotics Team operates much like an engineering firm with marketing and community outreach playing key roles in creating a successful team.  In addition to engineering and computer programming, the program teaches life skills as students excel at public speaking, making presentations and helping others.

We asked these remarkable young women a series of questions and each answered independently:

What has robotics meant to you?

Freshman Jordan Sigal: Robotics honestly means so much to me. It’s given me the chance to meet and become friends with people who share similar interests. It allows me to be myself without fear. It also gives me the amazing opportunity of getting experience for a potential future career in the engineering field. Jordan Segal works on documentation.

Senior Francesca Daszak: Robotics literally changed my life. before joining the team I wanted to be a biologist, but after partaking in the team for three years I will now be studying mechanical engineering in college. I’ve met the best friends I’ve ever made in robotics and learned that I can achieve anything I want to. Francesca Daszak is the co-captain the team as well as the head of documentation.

Junior Hannah Gandon: Robotics to me is a way to connect with the engineering field and learn about all that engineering has to offer. Being a part of robotics has introduced me to some of my best friends and has afforded me amazing opportunities to connect with people in the business world. Hannah Gandon is the project manager and writes the Business Notebook which houses all of the team’s marketing, outreach, sponsorships, and team organization.

Junior Vickie Chu: Robotics has been a second family to me. Spending time with the friends that I’ve made over the years has made my experience much more enjoyable. I love being with them and having fun with them after school everyday. Vickie Chu works on both machining/fabrication of parts, documentation and on CAD when parts need to be made.

What’s was the biggest surprise since you’ve been on the team?

Francesca Daszak: I think the opportunities that robotics has opened up to me. For example, I’ve been offered internships and potential jobs as well as robotics-specific and general merit-based scholarships for colleges.

Hannah Gandon: The engineering community is much more accepting and versatile than I originally thought. There are a million people in the field and everyone is supportive of each other and our endeavors because we’re all a part of our own community. 

Vickie Chu: The biggest surprise I’ve had on the team is the amount of opportunities to connect with the engineering world I’ve had. I’ve met and talked with so many people that have worked in several fields.  Speaking with them has broadened my horizons and actually helped me decide on a career path.

Jordan Sigal: The biggest surprise is when we made it worlds. We had a rocky season and had issues with the robot, so getting to worlds was such an incredible accomplishment.

Why do you think there aren’t more females involved in STEM related activities?

Hannah Gandon: It’s quite intimidating to join a male-dominated field and not everyone will be as supportive or encouraging towards a female joining a “Man’s field.” I think it can be seen as a bit threatening when women are just as good or better than men who only know male work environments. 

Vickie Chu: I actually believe the amount of females involved with STEM activities has grown exponentially. There may not be as many women as there are men in the field because women are still guided in certain directions by society; however, there has been a positive push toward equality in the workplace as of late.

Jordan Sigal: Being in a male dominated field is difficult but the rewards of sticking with it are incredible.

Francesca Daszak: I think the reason more females aren’t involved in stem activities is because of lack of confidence. It can be extremely intimidating to join a male-dominated team or club (or even class) in school, and perhaps even more difficult to stick to it if there are people trying to discredit your work because you’re a girl.

How has being on the robotics team changed you for the better?

Vickie Chu: In the beginning, I had no real technical experience and had minimal experience in computer software and CAD. From my freshman year, I’ve been learning so much about all aspects of engineering. I know my way around machinery and fabrication of parts, I know how to use CAD software and take advantage of it’s capabilities. Robotics has given me skills that I may not have obtained otherwise.

Jordan Sigal: The robotics team allowed me to see how STEM is used in the real world and has exposed me to thousands of potential future jobs. It also has allowed me to meet some of my now closest friends.

Francesca Daszak: Robotics has definitely helped me refine my skills in engineering. Being on the team has been great because it definitely fosters project-based learning which is vital to an engineering education. I have also grown as a leader and a teammate; throughout the years students on the team have to step up and take charge when needed, and learning to lead while under pressure is super important.

Hannah Gandon: Robotics has taught me about working as a team and managing multiple tasks. Unlike another sports where there’s one objective and a few strategies to succeed, we work on goals, strategies, organization, documentation, and delegation. There’s a lot more to our team than just building a robot which is something I definitely wasn’t expecting when I first joined. 

What are the challenges you’ve faced being a female in a male-dominated sport?

Jordan Sigal: Often times, it’s assumed I am inferior or less than just because of my gender.  Even though it is sometimes hard, just by being there I’m showing my strength and that women are just as capable as men.

Francesca Daszak: I’ve experienced my fair share of unfair treatment especially when I first joined the team.  Documentation was seen as a waste of time by a lot of members and thought of as a job that requires no talent. Thankfully, those people were proven wrong as we would not be able to advance to States let alone Worlds without our excellent documentation!

Hannah Gandon: There has been a lot of man-splaining of things that I am very capable of doing on my own. There is also a common frustration of ideas or comments being ignored, only for them to actually be addressed when a male says it. It’s a societal issue and very frustrating but the more the hypocrisy is called out, the less it happens. If you stand up for yourself and show that you are capable, you earn respect. The guys realize that there is a lot more to us than they thought, we are teammates and equals. By standing up for ourselves we have become a closer, better team.

Vickie Chu: Although it is not as prominent, I can still say as a female, I’ve faced sexist remarks. Many females on robotics teams end up having to do documentation (not that it is an unwanted job or bad), which is a very important job on the team and stands as one of the largest aspects of robotics as they prepare engineering notebooks that are often used in the working world. However, during my time on the team, I have been focused on a lot of the building and manufacturing aspects of the robot. I’ve been doing both and I’m aiming to become a very well rounded member.

These young women all agree that standing up for themselves with gracious professionalism is the best way to earn respect and has empowered them.

What would you say to young women thinking about joining the team?

Francesca Daszak: Don’t be afraid to join! It can be intimidating to see mainly boys as your teammates, but you must remember that you are just as capable as the rest of them!

Jordan Sigal:  I would highly recommend that girls interested in engineering or STEM join the team. Even though there are challenges, it is such an amazing experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Vickie Chu: I would say that they should not let anything hold them back. Nothing should keep them from working on whatever they want to work on, that their gender should not define what their role is on any team. I’d want them to immerse themselves in positive environment we create that allows them to foster their engineering and STEM education.

Hannah Gandon: Do it. Literally just take a leap of faith and do it. It’s so important that women believe in themselves and pursue STEM related clubs, teams, and careers. It can be intimidating to be the newbie in a room full of guys with more experience but as you learn you come to realize that you’re just as capable as anyone else and your contributions matter. Interested young women should get more involved in STEM and give it a chance, there are millions of opportunities available as long as you just have faith in yourself and your capabilities. 

Meet the young women (and the young men) of the Suffern High School Robotics Team on Saturday April 6th at the REACH Foundation’s STEAM Expo from 11:00am-3:00pm at Suffern High School. They will also be at NEAF at Rockland Community College on both Saturday and Sunday.

If you would like to support their fundraising efforts to get to the World Championships in Detroit please donate on their Go Fund Me page.