Avni Ranrakshani is dead set on working in the medical field once she graduates from Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

But the freshman isn’t sure exactly what she wants to do. Her degree plan focuses on medicine except for one class – robotics. Because she had an opening in her schedule Avni, 14, thought robotics was worth trying. She thought it would be easy at first, but found out the opposite.  

“It’s a lot of hard work, but the process is what makes it really fun,” she said. 

Avni is one of 13 students on the Young Women’s Leadership Academy’s robotics team. They call themselves “The Dork Side.” The all-female team was created in 2016 and regularly breaks the gender barrier when they compete. They likely will do so again at their upcoming Feb. 25 regional meet in Flower Mound. 

The robotics class and team are designed to teach skills that could help young women succeed in the science and technology job market.

“All of the instruments and equipment used to build these robots are all used by young women and that’s not necessarily the narrative for a lot of other robotics teams,” said Tamara Albury, principal at Young Women’s Leadership Academy. 

A growing team

Senior Fawn Giesecke, 17, is the robotics team captain and six-year veteran member of the team. She joined because of her interest in STEM —  science, technology, engineering and math.

Fawn joined when she was in middle school, when the team was just forming. 

“We had a robotics club, but we didn’t have a competition team,” she said. “I wanted to go compete with all this stuff that we’re building.” 

Sergio Flores, robotics teacher and First Tech Challenge coach, has guided the team since 2016. 

The first competition team had six members and a small corner of the classroom dedicated for them to use. Now, the team has grown to 13 with a larger arena taking up about half of the classroom. 

In the team’s early days, Flores knew the team would be unique in competitions. Most robotic teams in the region are composed of all-male or coed teams. 

“We were the only team in the region that was all girls,” Flores said. 

‘We want to win’

This year, the team is competing for the first time in a league tournament, which combines top teams from the area to compete for the regional and world championships. This is the first time Flores is taking a step back from the team and letting his students take the lead. 

The North Texas First Tech Challenge regional championship is Feb. 25 at Marcus High School.  If the team advances, they will have a chance to compete in the 2023 First Championship in Houston on April 19. 

Flores sees potential in his students’ skills that can bring the team to victory. 

“This year’s team is very motivated,” he said. 

The robotic team’s season kicked off in September. They compete in the First Tech Challenge, a robotics competition for middle and high school students to design, build and program a robot. 

This year’s challenge is related to the United Nations’s goal to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. 

The students meet during class, after school and sometimes on the weekend to construct their robot. 

The team can construct a functioning robot in about a month, Giesecke said. However, the students make adjustments throughout the season to better improve it. 

The students compete in competitions across North Texas, but they want to win the world competition. Four years ago, the team advanced to the world competition but did not place. Fawn was in middle school at the time. 

“It was fun to watch but as for this team, we want to win this time around,” Fawn said. 

A hope for the next generation

Flipping through the team’s notebook, junior Maria Urdampilleta stumbled upon a picture of when the robotics team visited Dolores Huerta Elementary School. In the photo, Maria and her teammates flank one side of a small robot as Huerta Elementary students gathered on the side. 

Maria, 16, frequently thinks about that moment as a reminder to encourage girls across Fort Worth ISD to pursue an engineering career.

In the robotics classroom, a corner shimmers with gold and silver awards. Shelves are filled with the accolades. Awards matter, but the robotics team is much more than that for Albury, their principal.

“It’s an all-female team, and a majority of our students are students of color and are underrepresented. That alone is very telling. They get out there and do it,” Albury said.

Avni, the student who plans to go into the medical field, picked up a controller from the class workbench on a recent school day. She fiddled with the joysticks to make the robot move. The robot jolted sideways and ran into a cone.

Avni couldn’t help but to giggle. She was slightly embarrassed when the robot didn’t follow the program she set for it. She recognizes robotics probably isn’t ideal for her future medical career. The team, though, has shown her new perspectives. 

Now, she’s thinking of how to combine her passion for medicine and her newfound love for engineering.

Disclosure: Tamara Albury is a member of the Fort Worth Report’s Reader Advisory Council. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Taylor Coit is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at taylor.coit@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter

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Taylor Coit

Taylor Coit is a recent graduate from the University of Texas at Arlington with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Shorthorn, UT-Arlington’s student publication...