2024 Photo Contest Winners
BELLAIRE • MEMORIAL • RIVER OAKS • TANGLEWOOD • WEST UNIVERSITY

Girl Power

The girls behind the robots

Michelle Casas Groogan
Click the Buzz Me button to receive email notifications when this writer publishes a new article or a new article in this column is published.
Porsche Harrington, Audi Harrington, Xahilyn Amador, Ellery McDaniel, and Olivia Dittrich

ROBO LOVE Porsche Harrington, Audi Harrington, Xahilyn Amador, Ellery McDaniel, and Olivia Dittrich are high school members of the PlatyPirates, an all-girls robotics team in Houston. They have a tradition of locking in hand-hearts before every match. (Photo: FIRST in Texas)

Female competitors are having a breakout moment. And I’m not talking about athletics. 

Behold the PlatyPirates, an all-girls robotics team formed two years ago at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls Catholic school. The group started small but has coalesced into a community team of 16 girls representing five different high schools across the Houston area.

They compete in a world-wide robotics competition put on by a non-profit organization called FIRST. FIRST is the acronym, “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” The PlatyPirates were the only all-girls team in Houston and one of two in Texas to compete in this year’s competition in April. 

“Girls see our team at competition or out in the community, and they see how we're having fun even if we don't have an amazing robot that year, or that we’re having fun despite technical difficulties,” said Anna Kayser, a 2024 Duchesne graduate and former team captain. Anna is also one of the original eleven girls who started the team. 

Don’t be fooled by their team’s cutesy name. PlatyPirates is an homage to their beloved mascot – an irresistibly cute, albeit stuffed, platypus decked out in a pirate outfit. Playfulness aside, there’s nothing superficial or precious about their robot-building skills. The FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) is a challenging game where teams of high school students spend six weeks building industrial-sized robots under strict guidelines. The robots are programmed to play difficult field games in alliance with other teams. Teams also spend time fundraising, marketing, and promoting an appreciation for STEM.

PlatyPirates

The PlatyPirates robotics team celebrate winning the Imagery Award in the FIRST Texas District Championship in Houston. Pictured are: (top row, from left) Aashna Sreedharan (Duchesne Academy, 2024 graduate), Annette Dillihunt (Duchesne Academy, 2024 graduate), Domenica Sepe (Duchesne Academy, 11th), Anna Kayser (Duchesne Academy, 2024 graduate), Porsche Harrington (Robert E. Lee High School, 11th), Ellery McDaniel (Lamar High School, 12th), Audi Harrington (Robert E. Lee High School, 11th), Dahlia Soto (Duchesne Academy, 2024 graduate), and Sondra Hart (mentor); (back row, from left) Brandy McDaniel (mentor), Yacel Amador (mentor), Kennedy Wolf (Duchesne Academy, 2024 graduate), Daniel Vecseri (mentor), Lauren Campbell (Duchesne Academy, 2024 graduate), Xahilyn Amador (Ross S. Sterling High School, 11th), Oliva Dittrich (Tomball High School, 2024 graduate), Adulfo Amador (mentor), Izza Effendi (Duchesne Academy, 12th), Sadie Chamberlain (mentor), and Diana Kayser (mentor). (Photo: FIRST in Texas)

This year’s competition incorporated a music theme called “Crescendo,” which was revealed to the teams during a livestream in January. The teams then had a month and a half to build a robot that plays in matches that are about two and a half minutes long and consist of two periods – one robot-controlled and the other player-controlled. The field games consist of different opportunities to score points. For example, the robots can shoot foam rings into a high goal or a low goal. Then there is the more challenging “trap,” which is much higher off the ground, and the robot climbs toward it using a chain.  

No problem for the PlatyPirates. 

The team qualified for the Texas District Championship, where they won the Imagery Award, which celebrates attractiveness in engineering. Prior to the championship, they also won the Team Spirit Award at the San Antonio competition and the Creativity Award for strategy and design at the Houston competition. 

Ellery McDaniel, a rising senior at Lamar High School, is a programmer on the team who was nominated for the prestigious Dean's List through a series of essays and interviews and advanced to the FIRST World Championship, which was also held in Houston in April. 

“I'm amazed at a lot of the build stuff we've been able to accomplish,” said Ellery. She’s especially proud of the PlatyPirates for completing the “solo triple trap.” It’s a challenging maneuver where the robot must push open a small vertical trapdoor and then drop a ring into it. “We were the second team ever to do all three of those on our own during a match, which was really exciting,” Ellery said. 

Anna Kayser, Ellery McDaniel, and Aashna Sreedharan

Anna Kayser, Ellery McDaniel, and Aashna Sreedharan operate their robot during a match. (Photo:Dave Wilson)

This team has been fully embraced by Izza Effendi, a senior at Duchesne who lives in Memorial. She says some of her teammates had the options of joining co-ed teams closer to their homes but choose to drive 30-60 minutes to be on the all-girls team. 

“The environment of many teams is set up to steer girls away from joining the build and electrical teams, so many girls don't get the opportunity to even touch their own team's robot,” said Izza. “People notice us for having so many girls with active roles on our team, and little kids walk up to our team members to ask us questions.” 

Ellery joined the group last year. She doesn’t mind the drive from her home in West University to meet with her PlatyPirates crew in an office space in the West Houston Energy Corridor, especially since she has had the experience of being on a co-ed team. 

“I was kind of told time and time again that I wasn't right for STEM work, and I was even told by a boy on the team that because I was a girl, I was too emotional to ever be a good leader in robotics,” said Ellery. “So I've definitely had trouble with boys being kind of isolating of girls in STEM.” 

There is a nation-wide movement to encourage girls to get involved with STEM, in hopes of bridging the gap in the STEM workforce. The American Association of University Women points to a recent study that says women make up only 28% of the U.S. STEM workforce. The gender gaps are exacerbated in engineering and mathematical fields, where women constitute as little as 17% of the workforce. 

Siren Song

The PlatyPirates' robot named “Siren Song” scores points. (Photo: PlatyPirates)

Diana Kayser is a co-leader of the group and mother of former team captain Anna. She has devoted her time to her daughter’s cause, creating a safe space for high school girls to explore STEM. 

“The growth has just been tremendous,” Diana said. “As a team, I’ve seen them grow the idea that this is a team by girls for girls.” 

The team’s mission includes community outreach and education initiatives. The PlatyPirates host events called “Bots with Tots” where they introduce robotics to children at local libraries. They also have an ongoing project called “Woman of the Week,” where they highlight women in STEM on their Instagram page (@frc_platypirates). 

“I really like that we are a supportive and welcoming team to girls who face challenges on their co-ed teams, because I've known a lot of people who are in STEM who are always pushed away from the robots,” said Anna, who is headed to Trinity University to study physics. 

“Just seeing (my daughter’s) leadership skills develop, how she communicates with adults and with students; it’s almost not even about the robot itself,” Diana said about her daughter. “But it’s about just seeing her grow into this confident, young woman.”

It's girl-power unleashed – inevitable, unstoppable and bursting with potential. 

Editor’s Note: To learn more about the PlatyPirates, visit platypirates9181.wordpress.com

To leave a comment, please log in or create an account with The Buzz Magazines, Disqus, Facebook, or Twitter. Or you may post as a guest.