Robotics inspires future engineers

Viasat-sponsored teams participate in world robotics event

Mari Kate Gerhardstein

High-school senior Mari Kate Gerhardstein, daughter of Viasat Duluth, GA engineer Joe Gerhardstein, has participated in a decade of robotics competitions. At a relatively young age, it’s helped her clearly define her career goals.

“After 10 years in this, I think my future career is pretty well inked up,” she said. “I’m going to college for mechanical engineering with an emphasis on mechanics.

“Before FIRST Robotics, I wanted to be a ballerina. But now I know — mechanical engineering is what I want to do the rest of my life.”

Mari Kate isn’t the only one who’s undergone a transformative experience through the competition.

“A lot of my team members have decided to major in computer science, art and design,” she said. “That’s also a part of this. And we all learned a lot about teamwork.”

FIRST Robotics is an annual competition that requires teams to build and program industrial-size robots. The robots then play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors.

This year, Gerhardstein’s all-female team, the Tech Titans from suburban Atlanta, advanced to April’s world competition in Houston.

More than 30,000 people, including students, mentors, coaches, volunteers, media, and supporters, put their innovation, teamwork, and robotics skills to the test at the annual FIRST Championship.

“It was unbelievably cool,” Mari Kate said. “It was really interesting to meet people from different countries and see all their ideas.

“It’s a lot harder to place at the world event because it’s a lot bigger, with 160 teams instead of most competitions — which have 30-40 teams. We placed pretty middle of the pack, but I still think that’s really good for our very first world.”

A second Viasat-sponsored team, the Robo-Lions of Peachtree Ridge High School —also from suburban Atlanta — joined the Titans at the world championship. Viasat has sponsored the Robo-Lions since 2017.

While neither team placed at the top, both did well. And the progress they’ve made during this season and the years leading up to it are what matter, their mentors say.

“They’ve come a long way, and I’m really proud,” said Dustin Krack, a Duluth-based system design engineer who coached the Robo-Lions. “They made a strong comeback coming out of the pandemic. I think they’re very happy to be working together after everybody being stuck at home so long, and I can see the professionalism among the students has actually grown.”

Gerhardstein’s team got help not only from her father, but from members of the Viasat Duluth Women in Tech (VWiT) group.

“Most of the VWiT members are female engineers, so we definitely wanted to give back what we’d been given in the past,” said Audrey Quinones, a Viasat product quality engineer. “It’s been a very rewarding experience.”

Quinones can relate to the young women based on her own teenage experience.

“I’m a woman and a Latina, and I’m here because I had access to an opportunity like they did,” she said. “At 16, I went to an engineering camp in Puerto Rico. They let us play with robotics, and that’s how I fell in love with electrical engineering.

“I think FIRST Robotics is very empowering. You get to work with other females and truly know if engineering is a fit for you. The statistics are not on our side when it comes to females and engineering. So being exposed to this is a great opportunity for them to know if it’s something they’d like to do.”

The competition teaches the students far more than engineering. Participants must fundraise to meet their goals, design a team brand, and work in cooperation with other teams, all under deadline pressure. The project season – each year featuring a different theme – must be completed in just a few months.

“It teaches them some good STEM tools they wouldn’t normally learn in a classroom — hands-on dealing with soldering, basics tools, CAD (computer aided design), engineering concepts, Newtonian physics,” Krack said. “And they learn about team dynamics.

“I think it’s great. The closest thing they had when I was in high school was shop class or ag class.”

Joe Gerhardstein agreed, noting the event requires expertise in multiple areas outside of STEM.

“There’s the business side, reaching out to do social media, finding financial support, and the creativity of doing drawings and presentations,” he said. “It’s like running a mini business for a year.”

That exposure impacted each member of the team in different ways.

“For Mari Kate, she’s not just showing up at college saying, ‘I want to do something STEM-related but I don’t know what,” he said. “Now she’s very focused on mechanical engineering.

“Of the five girls on the team, three are going into STEM careers. Another wants to do more like international business. The fifth is very creative and is going to pursue teaching art. Even if they don’t figure out something they want to do, they often figure out something they don’t want to do.”

For Mari Kate, her years in FIRST Robotics revealed a passion she might otherwise have never discovered.

“Now I do it for fun outside of robotics,” she said. “I take stuff apart that we have and put it back together, hopefully better than it was.”