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St. Francis robotics program first place in international underwater robotics competition

Marcus Grindstaff
St.Francis High School Team Geneseas prepares its ROV for the water.

The St. Francis High School’s robotics team took first place in an international underwater robotics competition, outperforming more than 500 teams from 30 countries, and making history as the first all-girls team to win.

The Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) event, part of the Marine Technology Service, took place June 24 in Denver, CO, where the competition was hosted by the St. Vrain Valley School District.

The St. Francis robotics team, Geneseas, started as an on-land robotics team before switching to more challenging underwater competitions. 

“We started competing in the (MATE) robotics competition three years ago, and we have been since then,” said Sofia Stuck, a St. Francis graduate and former Geneseas member.  

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The MATE competition challenges students to design and build underwater ROVs – remotely operated vehicles – to complete tasks that simulate real-world problems. 

“This year, the competition’s overarching theme had to do with addressing the United Nations sustainable development goals, particularly climate change and renewable energies,” senior Geneseas member Isa Gutierrez said. 

As underwater exploration grows, team members say, the need for safe and innovative equipment is becoming necessary. 

“It’s important for our generation to learn how to create these things (underwater ROVs), so we can have devices we know how to use in the future,” sophomore Geneseas member Yogja Singla said. 

To qualify for MATE’s international competition, Geneseas had to first present and win at a regional event, which was hosted in Monterey.

“The top two winners at regionals advance to internationals, and since we won first we got to go to the world championship,” Singla said. 

After months of revising and finalizing their robot, Geneseas displayed its ROV at the international competition performing a variety of tasks. 

“We have what is called a product demonstration where there are a bunch of different PVC pipes and props in a pool to simulate all the oceanic problems that we are trying to address,” Gutierrez said. “Our pilot has 15 minutes to pilot our robot and accomplish as many tasks as possible, which proves how well our ROV really works.”

In addition to demonstrating the uses of the ROV, Geneseas had to document and present the technical qualifications of its creation. 

“There is a presentation in which you have to memorize sections that describe the robot or team, such as describing what the props do, safety precautions, or how we utilized our budget,” Stuck said. “It becomes a 25-page document detailing every important, well-written bit about our team and ROV, which is memorized and presented to three judges at internationals.”

The team’s efforts resulted in multiple awards that were part of its victory.

“We got first place overall, first place in our marketing display, first in safety, and we also got an award for team spirit,” Gutierrez said. 

The program had a salutary effect on students, especially from the lower grades.

“As a freshman at the time, winning this award was especially inspiring and has motivated me to keep going in robotics,” Singla said. 

Along with Singla, other students attending St. Francis have recently expressed interest in joining the robotics team. 

“There is a great degree of interest from prospective students who make their high school choice based on the reputation and notoriety of our robotics team,” St. Francis president Fadia Desmond said. “We are constantly thinking about the importance of supporting the program so that as many future Troubies with expressed interest can be part of the team.”

One way the school plans to sustain the growth of the program is by building an Aquatic Complex on campus. 

“Having our own home pool means full access right here on campus with no wasted travel time, which means more time for underwater ROV design and build,” Desmond said. 

Growing the infrastructure of the team will allow for more girls to participate. 

“We will continue to grow the program and provide this opportunity to girls that want to explore engineering through robotics,” Geneseas coach Marcus Grindstaff said. 

Geneseas must design, build and document a brand new robot for this year’s MATE ROV competition, and the recruitment of new members will speed up the process and help the team meet its deadlines. 

We are already back at it for the 2023-2024 season,” Grindstaff said. “This year’s robot should be ready to be in the water in January and our first competition is in April.”

The recruiting process should not be difficult as the only credentials necessary for joining are an interest in robotics and the desire for that interest to grow.

“Be committed, be curious and be ready to learn,” Gutierrez said. 

With the growth of the program, Grindstaff said it will be “a great opportunity to engage more girls in engineering during their high-school years to accelerate their learning, build confidence in their abilities and prepare them to excel in college and the workplace.”

Along with other former Geneseas members, this is already proving true for Stuck who plans to pursue a path of mechanical engineering at Santa Clara University. 

“I love mechanical engineering and, after falling in love with it, I couldn’t even imagine myself doing anything else,” Stuck said. 

Stuck also highlighted the importance of the robotics competitions on her future and for women in general. 

“Having us work with other women early on creates connections and shows a united front in this male-dominated field,” she said. “This sense of empowerment gives girls confidence when they enter the real world of robotics and shows their male counterparts that we can work hand in hand.” 

Genesea’s members hope their achievement at the MATE ROV competition inspires other young women to strive for excellence in robotics and other related STEM fields.

“There are not many girls on robotics teams and even (fewer) all-girls teams,” Gutierrez said. “Through this competition, our goal is to demonstrate to other girls that we are capable and can do anything a man can do.”

Desmond said it’s important for students to have role models in their peer group they can look up to.

“We often think of adult role models who pave the way for young people,” she said. “I think it is other youth who set the example for their peers. Our robotics team members allow future generations of young women to see who they can become.”



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Samantha Rickards
Samantha Rickards, Reporter
I am a senior at St. Francis High School in East Sacramento.
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