Denise Fedorow
Freelance Writer
February 2, 2024 // Diocese

All-Girls Robotics Team Competes at State Finals

Denise Fedorow
Freelance Writer

In the past, the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) tended to be more of a male-dominated pursuit, but don’t tell the all-girls robotics team at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Elkhart that; they’re excelling in robotics and coding and recently competed in the robotics state finals on Saturday, January 20, at Westfield High School near Indianapolis.

The girls finished 28th out of 36 teams for their robots’ performance at the competition, but according to the coaches, that was only 25 percent of the team’s final score, which they were to receive later. The trio of girls are coached by two female teachers at St. Vincent de Paul – Jen Howe, Assistant Principal and fifth grade teacher, and Natalie Camren, a middle school science and math teacher. When asked how unusual it was to have female coaches, the teachers said they could think of only one other team with only female coaches.

Photos provided by St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School
Members of the robotics team compete at the state finals.

It wasn’t planned to have an all-girls team, it just worked out that way. According to team members Xochitl (pronounced “so-shee”) Sanchez (in eighth grade), Audrey Wallach (seventh grade), and Lilly Giglio (sixth grade), there were boys on the team previously, but they left for various reasons.

This is the seventh year St. Vincent’s has had a robotics team for sixth through eighth graders. Camren told Today’s Catholic she became interested in bringing robotics to St. Vincent after seeing a presentation about robotics at a teacher’s conference. “I came back and told Jen and [Principal Tara Lundy] … ‘this is happening!’”

The coaches are the first to admit that they don’t do much to help the girls. “The coaches do nothing; we’re just here to supervise and be the adults in the room,” Camren said. “And chauffer!” Howe added.

The name of the team is Guardian of the Legos – a take on the name of the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy” and because their school mascot at St. Vincent is the Guardians. The Lego robot is named “Groot,” a character in the Marvel film.

Denise Fedorow
The trio of girls that make up the St. Vincent de Paul (Elkhart) robotics team practices at school before their state competition. From left are Lilly Giglio, Xochitl Sanchez, and Audrey Wallach.

The girls had to win a qualifying round in November with 25 teams, 18 of which advanced to the semistate round. At semistate, the Guardians competed against 47 other teams and were one of 18 to advance to the state finals. At the qualifing round, the team won an Innovative Project Award, and at semistate, they were given a Core Values Award. To win the Innovative Project Award there has to be “a lot of research and evidence,” Audrey said. To win the Core Values Award, teams must display discovery, innovation, impact, teamwork, inclusiveness, and fun, Audrey explained.

During a competition, they must program their robot to complete a given mission in 2 minutes and 30 seconds, Audrey said.

“We’re also judged on how it looks and moves,” Lilly added.

Photos provided by St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School
From left, Audrey Wallach, Xochitl Sanchez, and Lilly Giglio pose for a photo with the Breakthrough Award trophy they won at the state competition in Westfield, Indiana, on Saturday, January 20.

When asked why they chose robotics, Xochitl said she joined because of the fun people and said she’s not athletic and likes “to build as a hobby.” Audrey responded that she enjoys science and felt that because all her siblings had hobbies, she wanted one of her own. “And the eighth graders were fun to hang out with,” she said. Lilly said her older sister was in robotics and talked about how much fun practice was. “It looked like so much fun, so I wanted to see what it was about. I like coding and building. I want to work in coding when I grow up.”

The girls shared that a lot of judges “think it’s really cool” that they’re an all-girls team. “We’ve been complimented on it,” Audrey said.

Howe said that working with the three girls on the team has been “amazing.” They’ve made it their own and taken it beyond what I thought. It’s a lot of fun to watch them grow, fun to watch how they get past frustrations, because it doesn’t always work.”

At the state competition, the team was given one of three Breakthrough Awards, which “celebrates a team that made significant progress in their confidence and capability in both the Robot Game and Innovation Project and are a shining example of excellent Core Values. They demonstrate that they understand that what they discover is more important than what they win.”

Beginning in the fall, the robotics team practices twice a week through January. In March, they begin again by introducing new members to the basics. Audrey said, “That’s when we introduce new kids to coding and mentor them.”

Howe shared that the coaches never had to check on the girls’ grades to make sure they were keeping up academically. “We’ve never had a team this strong,” Camren added.

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