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All-girl robot team’s eye on the prize

St. Catharine Academy’s robotics team headed to state championship

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Robotics is the name of the game for ten students at St. Catharine Academy.

The all-girls robotics team is headed to a state championship in their first year of competition, after placing second at a regional competition in January.

The state competition, run by VEX Robotics, will take place at Adelphi University in March.

Teacher Sheree Petrignani leads the team, and started the robotics class when she arrived at St. Catharine Academy three years ago. Her competition team is made up of juniors and seniors (and one sophomore) taking courses such as A.P. Physics, A.P. Calculus or robotics.

The girls spend hours after school each week working on the robots. Some of the girls program the robots, some specialize in building or fixing them, while other concentrate on the driving. Petrignani said she tries to let the girls work out any problems with the robots on their own.

Patricia Wolf, the president of St. Catharine Academy, said Petrignani acts as a mentor to the girls, many of whom are interested in STEM careers. STEM is the general term for jobs and areas of study that fall under the umbrella of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Wolf said she has a goal of getting more young women to enter these male-dominated fields.

“We want to begin to create a curriculum to strengthen areas where women are underrepresented,” Wolf said.

Petrignani said she majored in computer science and worked for several years as an engineer before she hit the proverbial glass ceiling. She went to graduate school and fell into teaching, and she said she feels that her way to fix the problems she faced is through her students.

“My mission is to take the girls and recruit as many of them into the field, and flood the market and change the market that way,” she said.

The male-domination of STEM fields was visible to the team when they arrived at the regional competition in New Rochelle where they placed second.

“I did see immediately was that we were the only girls,” said Wolf, “the only girls in a sea of boys.”

They will be one of two all-girls teams of 40 at the state competition on March 8.

“Seeing the other robots, they were really giant compared to our little comet,” said Mehar Rafiq, who acts as a coach to the team. The girls didn’t know how their robot, named Comet after the school mascot, would stack up.

“We think it’s not that good, and then we go to competition and find out it’s good,” Adwoa Manu said.

But whether or not the team wins, the girls seem to have enjoyed the journey. Megan Rodriguez said that robotics is rewarding because of all the hard work and hours that go into the finished product.

“It’s like your child” she said.

Reach Reporter Jaime Williams at (718) 742–3383. E-mail her at jwilliams@cnglocal.com.
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