MORRIS COUNTY, NJ – When the all-female robotics team from Villa Walsh Academy embarked on their first-ever competition in the global FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition (FRC) league, expectations were tempered, and the rookie team’s success came as a surprise to almost everyone – except for Senator Anthony M. Bucco.
“Those of us who have followed the progress of these young ladies over the last year know you should never underestimate these kids,” Bucco said. “These high schoolers are determined, focused, and inspired by some fantastic teachers and mentors. They don’t know the word ‘can’t,’ and their ability to work under pressure is proven.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that they exceeded every expectation this year,” Bucco said.
Villa Walsh’s Sisters 1st team, the state’s first all-female FRC team, was launched in November 2020 with plans to compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition in the spring, but the pandemic interfered, and the season was not launched in a traditional manner.
Lee Anne Nugent, the team’s Head Coach and math teacher at Villa Walsh, noted that it gave students an outlet through STEM to help others by designing a robot concept to help patients suffering from COVID.
“Ironically, launching a team during the pandemic was beneficial for Villa Walsh. The majority of activities and athletics were canceled,” said Nugent. “And, through one of the central missions of our school, helping those in need, the students became passionate about the field of robotics.
“We structured our team like a little corporation with eight sub-teams, eight departments, to complete all of the necessary tasks. It unifies our school – anyone can join, all have different responsibilities, and everyone is busy,” Nugent said.
When the team was starting out, Nugent, a former engineer at AT&T Bell Laboratories, set out to recruit students. She was assisted by Co-Coaches Alessandra Sanchez, a veteran of FIRST Robotics who initially presented the program to Villa and Carol Forte, a science teacher at the school.
“We had to make sure we had enough interest,” Nugent said. “As it turned out, we have 59 students in the program, more than a quarter of the student body. And, after our successful inaugural year, I hope participation will be increasing.”
Nugent said that from the start, the goal was to create a supportive group to encourage young women to expand horizons.
“FIRST is ‘More than Robots’,” Nugent said. “Through our opportunity with FIRST we want to generate more interest and support for females in STEM. There is a world of opportunity for young women, and they should know about their options.”
Sisters 1st’s delayed competitive debut waited until April 1 in Skillman, N.J. It was the last district competition of the spring and the nearest location to Villa Walsh’s base in Morristown.
The FIRST Robotics theme for 2022, branded Rapid React and presented by Boeing, emphasized engineering, creative thinking, and teamwork. Robots had to gather inflatable spheres, score points, and return to their hangars to climb.
After a strong start competing against more established and experienced teams, Sisters 1st was ranked fifth in the 32-team tournament. However, Rocki, the Villa Walsh robot, ran into mechanical trouble that almost ended their day. Unable to take shots to score points, the robot drive team adopted a new defensive strategy and prevented opponents from scoring.
“We brought our pit with us to make repairs. We had everything, but there wasn’t enough time between matches to make the fix,” Nugent said. “The girls had to strategize and adapt on the fly. It really epitomized teamwork and the robotics experience.”
Against all odds and playing defense in the last three matches, Rocki and the Sisters 1st team earned a spot in the championship round and went on to win the tournament. Villa Walsh also claimed the Rookie-All-Star and Rookie-Highest Seed awards, giving them the opportunity to compete at the District Championship where they earned the District Rookie-All-Star and District Rookie-Highest Seed awards.
The team will be feted at a year-end banquet Monday, celebrating their success as one of only 34 all-female high school teams in the nation.
“This is the end of the year, but only the beginning for these young female leaders. They have enjoyed lessons and memories that will help launch them to ever-expanding accomplishments in the years ahead,” said Senator Bucco said. “This is something special, and young girls across the state will be inspired and empowered because of Sisters 1st and Villa Walsh Academy.”