Robotics teams pave way for STEM interest

Published July 8, 2018

TAMPA — When the combined robotic teams from Jesuit High School and Academy of the Holy Names met 2-year-old Theo Rimes at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital, the students' eyes lit up.

Known as the Stealth Tigers, they surrounded Theo as he sped around the office of Lauren Rosen, program coordinator for St. Joseph's Children's Hospital's Motion Analysis Center. The students arrived to take on the task of making the hospital's toy Mini Cooper and Mercedes Benz more kid friendly for the children in physical therapy.

Finally, they got the chance to employ their robotics lessons to a real world situation.

"This helps [the students] realize this can help translate into a career and offer help to others," said Lauren Hescheles, the Stealth Tigers moderator. "It gets them out of the mindset of 'I'm never going to use this in real life.'"

Youth and high school robotics teams frequently allow students to build their own robots for competitions, but do the exercises steer more kids towards STEM careers?

In a word, yes. Both mentors and experts point to indications that robotics fulfill the mission of spurring interest.

For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a nonprofit known as FIRST, stands as one of the leaders in robotics competitions.

It conducted a study that indicated FIRST participants are three times more likely to show gains on STEM career interest.

FIRST students also are 2.4 times more likely to show gains in STEM knowledge than the comparison group.

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At Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School, success appears to have fostered a greater interest in STEM careers and robotics.

The school's Phoenix Robotics team earned a spot in the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Remote Operated Vehicles International Competition in Federal Way, Wash., after a stellar effort at the Florida regional competition. Only two teams from the state qualified to attend the international event.

"I never thought I'd get an applause for picking up a basket," said Matthew Fernandez, a rising sophomore at Brooks DeBartolo and the son of team mentor Eric Fernandez.

The work, which required an estimated 10 hours each week from the team, has not deterred enthusiasm for the competitions or the career fields. Matthew and his brother Paul, a rising senior at Brooks DeBartolo, both agreed robotics amplifies their interest in STEM careers.

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The Stealth Tigers also enjoyed success this year. At a FIRST Robotics regional competition, 18 students placed second and advanced to the FIRST World Championships in Houston.

A team from Middleton High School also advanced to the competition in Houston.

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The participation of the Academy girls is particularly noteworthy. The FIRST study indicated female FIRST alumni are three times more likely to want to major in computer science and engineering, and five times more likely to want to major in robotics than their female comparison students.

The girls also enjoy other benefits from the competition. Academy of Holy Names rising senior Maria Hurtado recognized she's learned a lot about herself after joining robotics on a whim.

"If you're afraid of looking stupid, but still have the smallest interest, just go for it," Hurtado said. "STEM is definitely something I'm interested in now."

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As the summer moves on, the Stealth Tigers members look forward to delivering on the promise of the project for St. Joseph's. Jesuit's Daniel Guagliardo, a rising senior, is thankful they can use their experiences from competitions and the classroom to a real life situation with St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.

"It's really transformed the field, in my eyes," Guagliardo said. "We've learned how to build and program robots and I like that we were able to combine this knowledge and use it to help people."

Contact Katelyn Massarelli at