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Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Engagement Drives Richmond Robotics Team

Maggie Walker Governor's School robotics team members Panth Doshi, Maya Román, Jake Holweger and Kavya Puthuveetil.
Maggie Walker Governor's School robotics team members Panth Doshi, Maya Román, Jake Holweger and Kavya Puthuveetil. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Each Spring, students across the country compete in robotics competitions. The initiatives develop proficiencies in STEM. But they also foster business skills, collaboration and community engagement. 88.9 WCVE’s Catherine Komp spent time with one Richmond team and files this report for Virginia Currents.


At Maggie Walker Governor’s school, the robotics team has just a few hours left before a competition.

Student: Can you enable the robot?

The team, called the Mech Tech Dragons adjusts the pneumatics and works out a bug in the code. This year’s robot is named Zenith and it needs to shoot balls into an eight foot tall receptacle, transport gears and climb a rope. The First Robotics Competition is intense. Students start in January, pouring through more than 100 pages of rules and specifications. They have just six weeks to build the robot used in competition. Panth Doshi is a senior and the team’s CEO.

Panth Doshi: Since last year we started making two robots every year. So after the competition robot is bagged, we still have our other robot which is identical to practice with, debug, help our drivers learn how the robot is controlled.

A lot of the process is trial and error; designing parts, fabricating them and seeing if they work.

In the build room students Kavya Puthuveetil and Maya Román point out some new equipment, on loan from a mentor.

Kavya Puthuveetil: It’s the first time we’ve ever used a lathe, so it’s been exciting.
Maya Román: We’ve machined a lot of important parts for the robot using it.

One of those parts is a pulley. Initially, junior Jake Holweger made it with a 3D printer.

Jake Holweger: That didn’t work, you can see a number of them they ended up not quite straight or warped...

WIth the lathe, they achieved much more precision.

Holweger: For me and Kavya, as lead builders in the room, this is a huge opportunity to learn something new.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math or STEM is at the heart of robotics. But students also develop skills in outreach, marketing and fundraising. Senior Sonja Linton heads up that department. She this year’s budget was about $42,000. Students raise that money from individuals and local businesses. Since they meet for several hours after school, students also secure in-kind donations for food

Sonja Linton: The whole point of this is to make sure people want to come and they can come. One of our kids is from New Kent… if he’s here and getting home late, we want to make sure his parents know he’s taken care of, he’s fed...

Communications members design brochures, give presentations and carry out the team’s business plan. This work has been recognized four years in a row with Entrepreneurship Awards.

Román: This one turns it on...

Team members travel to elementary and middle schools to give presentations. At Henrico’s Holman, the Maggie Walker students help third and fourth graders operate a previous season’s robot that shoots frisbees. The students want to increase gender diversity in STEM and on their team, so they started a new outreach initiative.

Linton: This year, we created a program called Women in STEM seminars. Every month or so we have a prominent woman in a STEM career come to our school and talk about how they got there and what they do.

The team is starting to see results, going from about zero females a few years ago to about one-third. Josephine Holland is a team safety officer and builder.

Josephine Holland: Which may not sound high but compared to some other teams, it’s up there.

For Holland, joining the Mech Tech Dragons has been a long-time goal.

Holland: I did the First Lego League in elementary school for two years and I absolutely loved it. We came to Maggie Walker for our final competition and I fell in love with the school and I was like, I’m coming here and doing robotics. This was fourth grade, I had never heard of Maggie Walker as an international studies school but I knew this is where I wanted to go.

The focus at Maggie Walker Governor’s School is government and international studies. But the robotics team is the second most popular club. Many alumni come back as mentors or to check in and offer support. The students are developing a network that might help them in college or later in a professional career.

Aurle Gagne: One thing that’s really great about this team is the kids do everything.

Aurle Gagne is a software engineer for a robotics company and one of the team’s mentors.

Gagne: The robotics team is really a business, it’s more like a company, the robot is just one small part of it.

Doshi: It’s a lot of teamwork and coordination. That’s one big thing about, not just driving a match, but actually the program as a whole you learn to work with others, collaborate in order to create something that’s better than what you alone would have created and that’s really awesome.

Outside the competition season, there’s still lots to do and the team stays busy all year. The Mech Tech Dragons mentor elementary students in Lego robotics. They helped revive a First Robotics team at Appomattox Governor’s School and give presentations at other schools hoping to inspire new teams. And they created a grant program to help fund other schools’ robotics teams. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.