A growing robotics program provides opportunities for young girls to thrive in STEM
For Lilly Coggin ’26, participating in the 2018 VEX Robotics World Championship was exhilarating, fulfilling, and eye-opening. “I remember thinking it was the absolute coolest thing ever, and let’s be honest, it was,” says Coggin.
Coggin, along with Ivy Carls ’26 and Caroline Chandler ’26, were the first St. Mary’s team to attend the worldwide competition. Then fourth graders, the students led the way for the budding robotics program to blossom into a formidable force in the competitive robotics arena.
Thanks to these girls’ enthusiasm and early success, VEX robotics has taken off at St. Mary’s. Since the first appearance, St. Mary’s has sent numerous teams to the World Championship, including three in 2023.
At the 2023 championship, Middle School students Mia Federico ’29, Riya Kumar ’29, Kylin Menard ’29, and Sloan Webster ’29 received one of the competition’s high honors, the Create Award. Out of 700 teams from 80 countries, St. Mary’s students were recognized for their use of creative engineering design solutions to one or more challenges during the competition. “We were so honored to receive the Create Award because it proved we had the skills and teamwork to create a great robot that worked for us and could do well in the competition. Having our work recognized in front of hundreds of teams from all over the world was an amazing experience,” shared Federico.
Leading the way
In 2017, Applied Technology and Innovation Coordinator Meagan Michael launched the robotics program at St. Mary’s, starting in the Lower School with VEX IQ competition teams. Coding and robotics had long been part of the Lower School curriculum, laying a foundation for the new after-school program.
In the second year, Carls, Chandler, and Coggin advanced through rounds of local and state competitions, earning the opportunity to attend the 2018 World Championship, competing against teams from across the world. Now entering the tenth grade, members of St. Mary’s first VEX World competition team are still in awe of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It was incredibly inspiring, especially for girls our age who were eager to take their place in the STEM world. I learned so much from being able to participate in this event, and it certainly solidified my love of STEM,” said Coggin. Kumar, a 2023 participant, shared a similar sentiment, “Being at the World Championship was a phenomenal feeling for our team. We experienced so many cool things, including working with international teams from China, Egypt, and Spain. It was so cool to see that VEX was worldwide.”
Developing key skills
The robotics program has expanded to South Campus, now available to grades 4-12. In the more advanced competitions, students use metal components to build their robots, and teams are given more freedom in their design. Under the guidance of Michael, students meet after school and during lunch breaks, working in teams to build and test a robot for competition.
Robotics students gain valuable critical thinking and problem-solving skills as they use the engineering design process to design, produce, test, and improve their robots for each
Competition. The teams must keep track of their ideas and progress in an engineering design notebook they submit for judging during competitions, where they explain their design process and choices. This year alone, St. Mary’s VEX teams documented more than 250 pages in their engineering design notebooks, detailing each change they made to their robot throughout this season.
In order to be successful in competition, students must exhibit excellent organizational, planning, project management, and leadership skills, while being able to compromise and work in a team. “VEX showed me that if you work hard, it will pay off. My team worked so hard and spent any free time we had critiquing our robot until it was the best it could be,” shared 2023 winner Menard. “In the beginning, we all had great ideas. So we created a
robot using everyone’s ideas. We were able to work well together because we believed in each other and focused.”
Chandler also recalls how the cultivation of these skills propelled them during the 2018 competition. “We had to work with an ‘alliance’ team that we were randomly assigned to each round. In one round, we were assigned a team where only the coach could speak English. We learned how to communicate and work together even with the boundaries of language in the way,” she said.
Opening the door
Competing with the robotics program allows students to learn and explore STEM fields at an early age, opening their eyes to what is possible for girls.
Participating in VEX has further fueled interest in robotics and STEM for students like Webster and Carls. “I thought robotics would be fun, but I didn’t realize how much I would like it. I really like doing the competitions,” said Webster. She also looks forward to the advanced challenges offered by high-school-level competitions. “In the Upper School competitions, you get to work with metal pieces. I think that will be even cooler.” “Being around so many people my age with the same interests as me made me feel like this is what I want to do. I plan to continue doing VEX and pursue engineering in college,” shared Carls.
After five years, VEX Robotics at St. Mary’s continues to grow and evolve. Michael’s students are the first to credit her passion and drive for the growth of the program. “Our amazing sponsor Mrs. Michael is our biggest supporter. We couldn’t reach any of our goals without her, and she always encourages us to use every opportunity as a learning experience,” said Coggin.
Michael’s vision for the program has opened the door for girls across campus to take part in a unique experience while developing key skills beyond science and engineering. “There’s a spot for everyone on the team, whether you’re an engineer, an artist, a designer, a programmer, or anything else that sparks your interest,” said Coggin. “I will forever be proud to say that I’m part of such an incredible program full of extraordinary people.”
Interested in getting involved with VEX Robotics?
New classes will be available in fall 2023. Lower and Middle School students must complete a VEX Robotics application and sign up for the After3 program. Upper School students must sign up for Robotics Club and attend an informational session.
2023 VEX Robotics Awards and Honors
Abigail Brown, Esme Larschan, and Thea Larschan
• Excellence Award and Amaze Award at a local competition
Briana Brown, Anika Kharbanda, Sahana Mudigoudar, and Leah Tate
• First Place in Teamwork Division, Build Award,
and Design Award at local competition
• Innovate Award at state tournament
Mia Federico, Riya Kumar, Kylin Menard, and Sloan Webster
• Excellence Award at local competition
• Fourth Place in Teamwork Division at state tournament
• Create Award at World Championship
- Lower School
- Middle School
- Upper School