Meet the all-female rookie robotic squad headed to a world championship

Sunday, April 22, 2018

CBC News

The team will head to Detroit this week to compete at the world championships


When the Build-A-Dream Amazon Warriors FIRST Robotics team formed it had one goal: make it to worlds.

At first it was a joke, then it was a cheer - and this week it becomes a reality. 

The all-female, rookie squad with members from Chatham-Kent and Windsor-Essex is headed to For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) after being crowned divisional winners at the Ontario competition this month. 

After a successful season they're headed to the world championships in Detroit on April 25th.

These competitions are essentially custom challenges given each year to get teams to design robots used to compete and collaborate with each other at events.

Here's some of the women who make up the six-member team.

Madison Vickery jumped at the chance to be part of the Amazon Warrior team believed to be the first all-female member and mentored team in Canada.

"Our mission, really, is to show that girls are just as capable to be part of STEM fields as men are," said Vickery, who is the mechanical lead for the group. 

"There's a lot of acceptance," said Vickery, talking about the advantages of working on an all-women team.

The team is supported by the Build-A-Dream, a Windsor group that promotes career options to women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

"We've all kind of been through the same situations. We all know what it feels like to be told we can't do something that we love to do."

Valerie Alexander first thought she was out of her element when she joined the squad but quickly realized she found friends that would become family.

"I never touched a tool in my life," said Alexander, who has wired a robot that will now compete on the world stage.

That idea — making it to the top of the competitive FIRST world — started out as a reckless dream, then a cheer whenever the girls overcame an obstacle.

"When we realized we were actually going to world's it was the most exciting, most emotional moment of my life."

Mackenzie Sulyak is the lead programmer of the Amazon Warriors team because, well, she's the only programmer on the squad.

"We're a rookie team and even going to provincials was insane," said Sulyak, who remembers the team breaking into tears once they found out they were headed to the world championships.

"At the start of this? I had no clue how to do Java. I opened the computer and I was like 'what is this?', and now I can program a fully functioning robot."

Madison Drouillard tried to find her way out of FIRST but the allure of the robotic-based sport keeps drawing her back to compete.

"I couldn't stay away for long," said Drouillard, a second-year university student at Waterloo.

She's also doing a co-op with CentreLine, who sponsor 10 teams in the Windsor-Essex region.

"These are awesome opportunities not just for now but for later on, as well and I'm working at CenterLine now so it kind of worked," laughs Drouillard.

"We're here to build a community," said Larry Koscielsk, vice-president of CenterLine, where the Amazon Warriors met leading up to world championships to go over strategy.

"You're close enough to a few of the kids to see how this program changed them," said Koscielsk. 

He said he's watched shy kids become shining stars by competing with a FIRST team.

Koscielsk said the robot is an essential excuse to get young people working together in creative environments to foster communication, critical-thinking, marketing and engineer skills.

Beyond Robotics
"There's so much more to FIRST than just making a little robot," said Daniel Akpedeye, who's part of a team at Vincent Massey Secondary School in Windsor.

He didn't think he knew enough about engineering to be part of the team. Now he's in his second-year and has found his groove while celebrating his best season with FIRST. 

"I struggled a lot when I was growing up," said Shahed Saleh, who described herself as the kid who kept to herself on the playground.

"The FIRST team really opened me up to learning more social skills and meeting other people."

Saleh, who is also on the FIRST team at Vincent Massey, said she plans on attending an engineering program in university.

Kouthar Waled is a mentor for the Amazon Warriors when she wasn't participating on her other team at St. Clair College. 

"It was really amazing to be able to troubleshoot and problem solve, overcome and triumph on both teams," said Waled, adding that both teams were able to work together at a competition in Windsor. 

Waled first joined the FIRST program to travel — but said now she's hooked because of her ability to work with the community.

"The mission is to encourage and inspire people to become involved in science and technology, and to make your community a better place."