“Why do we put a round pizza in a square box?” Sheree Petrignani asked her third period robotics competition class at St. Catharine Academy in the Bronx. It was the fourth morning back in school after summer break and ten girls sat still, uniformed half in skirts, half in pants, until Petrignani rephrased the question. “Why fit something circular into something square?”
Petrignani and the young roboticists, a collection of builders, programmers, designers, mechanics, electricians, and drivers, eased into the morning with engineering fundamentals. They admired the scalene sides of one classmate’s re-designed paperclip projected with a document camera called Elmo onto a large white screen at the front of the classroom. Petrignani tossed around words like diode, voltage, magnets, circulation, and scrap metal.
Last year, Petrignani’s roboticists qualified to the quarterfinals and won the Judges Award at States for their engineering notebook at the National VEX Robotics tournament, a competition between 100,000 robotics teams. Petrignani aspires to make nationals at the upcoming tournament in April 2017, a particularly challenging goal. All-girls teams and teams with female coaches are far and few between at the VEX robotics competition, she said.
St. Catharine Academy originally opened in Washington Heights in 1889 but settled in Pelham Parkway in 1953, where it’s still located today. Sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community, the not-for-profit catholic school encourages STEM and science classwork for the students, the majority of whom are Hispanic. The school website lists a 100% college acceptance rate from the 2016 graduating class, and of the 550 girls enrolled, 95% of them are from the Bronx. According to Petrignani, the secret to St Catharine’s success is the leadership of principal Ann M. Welch, whom she described as “hip.” Sister Welch attributed this reputation to her background in science.
“We’re the only school around that has a designated robotics class, not just a club,” said Petrignani. The class lost their “quarterback, cornerback, and wide receiver,” to public school and a move out of the city last year, so the classroom hours are especially critical if Petrignani is to take her team all the way to nationals. Without the three heavy hitters, she’s determined to whip the team into shape. “We need deviant programs to outsmart the boys.” Leading up to the big event next spring are scrimmages in January, regionals in February, and states in March.
The robotics classroom itself is more like a college level lab with a variety of sophisticated tools, Legos, and machines, including a 3D printer. Robots, a motorized Ferris wheel, solar submarines, and a replicate Big Ben fill the space. Hydraulics and three-gear chains will be incorporated for the parent-house later this fall.
“I was in book-club, but it wasn’t interesting for me,” said 16-year-old Tathy Mercedes, who Petrignani described as “addicted to building.” Mercedes dedicated herself to robotics, learning the basics first before joining the competition class. “You know when you get the right vibe?” she explained.
It’s not easy to join the competition class. Petrignani teaches three sections of robotics and also teaches physics, college algebra, calculus, and architecture. She’s been working at St Catharine’s Academy for four years, having previously taught at St. Pius V High School in the South Bronx, which closed in 2011. In the robotics program she’s built up at St. Catharine’s, Petrignani begins with a summer intensive for incoming freshman to spark interest and scout potentials. She’ll then categorize the budding roboticists as mechanics or programmers based on their natural talent. “I’ll observe and give them challenges to see where they’ll go,” she said.
“I thought it was complicated at first, but it’s really not,” said programmer Cheyenne Tobar, 16. Tobar, whose father is an engineer, plans to stick with robotics because of the bonds she’s formed with her teammates. “When we build together, it’s like building a house together,” she said. “Even if we take it down when something goes wrong, it’s worth the feeling of accomplishment when we finally get it done.”