Clad in gleaming metal with stylish light-pink accents, this robot’s name is Tyra.
However, she’s not named after supermodel Tyra Banks. Instead, her name is a shortened version of Tyrannosaurus Rex, the fierce inspiration for Nazareth Academy’s first-ever entry into FIRST Robotics Competition.
Despite being rookies, members of the Rochester school’s all-female team finished strong enough in the March 6-8 Finger Lakes Regional Competition at Rochester Institute of Technology to qualify for the national championships April 17-19 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
FIRST Robotics Competition provided parts and six weeks of time for the team to build its robot. About a dozen students created the robot with help from 12 Nazareth teachers and female mentors from Xerox Corp. The students also learned to market their machine through a Web site, a team logo, buttons, wrist bands and a commercial.
They dubbed their team NAZareX. The NAZ is for Nazareth Academy, the “a.r.e.” is for the team’s mission of “Acquiring Real Experience” and the X is in appreciation of team sponsor Xerox.
NAZareX and other teams competing in regional and national competitions this year had to build robots that could complete laps around a track while manipulating large rubber balls over and under obstacles. Three teams work together in alliances to collectively score points. During tournaments, participants are cycled through several alliances.
“Basically, you need to run the robot around a track and move a giant ball,” said senior Cassia Priebe, 18.
One of the tasks for which teams could score points was to move a ball over an overpass, said sophomore Patricia Apple, 15. Because it was their first year, team members opted to make a speedy robot instead of attempting to make such features as robotic arms, said senior Abby Stallworth, 18.
In addition to assembling their speedy entry from scratch, team members also had to purchase power tools using seed money from Xerox. One of the team’s biggest tasks was to spend time brainstorming ideas for the robot, and determining which tools would be needed to build it.
“We figured out what we wanted to get out of it, designing basic stuff like transmissions, wheels, gears and engines,” Priebe said, adding that she enjoyed the chance to try something new.
“I really enjoyed building stuff — going in and building things, and learning to use power tools,” she said.
Other team members specialized in spirit and communication. Stallworth built the team’s Web site, which includes video of the robot in action, pictures of team members and details of their progress in the competition. Patricia worked on a commercial that aired during the regional event.
Mary Ziewers, the school’s pre-engineering instructor, said the students learned many different types of engineering, including mechanical, electrical and software engineering. But one of the biggest bonuses of the program was that the students learned to work together on the project and learned how to budget their time and resources.
“It was a project and a problem they had to solve as a team,” Ziewers said. “Not any one of them could do it on their own.”
She said the robotics team is one part of Nazareth Academy’s focus on exposing girls to math, science, engineering and technology. The school offers a project-based, pre-engineering program called ASCENT, which includes courses in digital electronics, principles of engineering, robotics and computer-aided design applications. Graduation requirements also were instituted in 2006 that require all incoming students to take courses in the principles of engineering or integrated technologies.
Cheryl Hanzlik, a color and imaging specialist for Xerox who has a background in both biology and physics, said she believes exposure to the sciences is important because it may spark students’ love of them or allow students to learn early that their interests lie elsewhere.
She said one trend that troubles her is the decline in engineering and innovation at U.S. companies.
“What’s happening more and more is that we are relying on foreign technology,” Hanzlik remarked.
That was one reason why inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who has designed a variety of medical devices and the Segway Human Transporter, began the FIRST Robotics Competition in 1989.
FIRST — which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” — is a nonprofit organization that aims to give young people the chance to experience science and technology and to learn to tackle challenges with gracious professionalism. This year, 37,000 high-school students on more than 1,500 national and international teams competed in FIRST’s regional robotics competitions. FIRST also coordinates several other engineering competitions for students of various age levels.
Hanzlik noted that in addition to fostering innovation professionalism, the robotics competition also teaches self-sufficiency, as students solve problems with their bare hands.
“I think the hands-on piece is important,” Hanzlik said. “You can live your whole life having other people do things for you.”
Ziewers said the competition also teaches another life lesson: The students learn time management from their adult mentors.
“They get to see how do these women juggle a job and a family and volunteer,” Ziewers said. “They see it in real life. They can relate to the women very well.”
This story was updated March 27, 2008.