Ramona Convent’s robotics team has gotten used to the inevitible question.
“The first thing that teams ask us when they go around asking about each robot is, ‘Are you guys really an all-girls team? Do you really have only girls working on this robot?’” team captain Evita Chavez said. “Nobody ever believes us.”
But the Ramona Rampage is definitely all girls — and very serious about building robots. The team has been breaking a gender barrier in the still male-dominated high school robotics competitions for nine years.
When I joined the Rampage as a sophomore in 2003, we were an eclectic group of 20 girls who spent our weekends building, sketching and programming in biology teacher Aulikki Flagan’s garage. With no money from the school, we were forced to raise $5,000 for the entry fee for the yearly FIRST robotics competition. When we couldn’t raise enough money through boba sales, our captain’s parents would end up donating all the additional funds. With barely enough money to compete, we recycled parts from old robots and borrowed tools from Flagan’s garage. Our robot was the little engine that could — winning a coveted Judge’s Award in 2006.
That all changed three years ago, when former state Senator Gil Cedillo awarded Ramona Rampage a $60,000 grant. The influx of funding enabled the team to purchase new mecanum wheels for the robot, a laptop computer for programming and travel services. In addition to Cedillo’s grant, the team received $1,500 for new uniforms. The team also counts the California Institute of Technology, Galvanix, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and the Macy’s Foundation as sponsors.
Still, even that windfall is pennies compared to what other teams spend, with some dishing out more than $60,000 a year. Rampage still needs to fundraise and does occasionally borrow parts from old robots. “We still ask for team members to pay for hotel costs during the competition,” said Flagan. “We don’t know how much money we’re going to raise next year.”
For Chavez, who was an unofficial member of the Rampage during her eighth grade year, the past five years have been an exciting ride. “What’s really cool is that at the end of the competitions, girls from other teams will come up to us and say that we’ve inspired them and that it’s really changed their perspective of what they should be doing on a team,” said Chavez, who hopes to study environmental science in college next year. “A lot of girls told me that they came to Ramona just to join the robotics team because no other schools had robotics teams.”
For the past three months, the team of more than 40 girls worked on their mechanical creation – writing code, soldering electrical wires and working with power tools — in a designated robotics room on campus. It was all in preparation for a state-wide competition in March, the highpoint of the year.
Hopes were high in the Sacramento regional competition earlier this month, and the Rampage wanted to prove an all-girls team could win a robotics competition. Instead, the girls placed 32nd out of 63 teams from across the state. But they didn’t go home empty-handed: the Rampage won the spirit award.
“During the competition, I felt horrible. We were having so many problems with the robot and everything seemed to be going wrong,” Chavez said. “But now that we're back, everyone keeps talking about how much fun they had and how they wish we never left. The girls came back as if we won the championship and I guess bringing something home was as if we had. They are all so proud to be a part of the team and are determined to build an amazing robot next year.”