ANDREWS For anyone who thought girls weren’t good at STEM, there’s a group of Andrews Middle School young women who would like to have a word with them.

The squad, dubbed the Rapture Raptors, includes members Georgia Morgan, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, Tess Azam, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, Ava Winegar, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, and Hayley Killingsworth, a 13-year-old eighth-grader.

They competed in the FIRST Tech Robotics South League Championship at University of Texas Permian Basin in February. The contest was called Freight Frenzy and while the team didn’t make the top spots (they came in 15th), they made an impression.

Teacher Gary “Kip” Smith said there are four girls on this team. Twenty-four students participated in competitions, but there are about 100 in the program.

Andrews Middle School seventh grade “Rapture Raptors” member Tess Azam, 13, right, attaches components to her team’s robot Thursday afternoon, March 3, 2022, at Andrews Middle School. (Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

This is Smith’s third year teaching in Andrews. He was previously at Wilson & Young Medal of Honor Middle School for two years.

The chance to get in the ground floor of a robotics program drew Smith to Andrews. He said robotics didn’t exist at Andrews Middle School before he arrived, but there is a program at Andrews High School.

Robotics and teaching didn’t start off being paired in Smith’s life.

“I majored in business. I have my undergrad in business and my MBA. I just kind of took money out of the equation and I thought teaching would be a good fit …,” Smith said.

At Wilson & Young, he taught an engineering type of class, but said he didn’t like anything about it until they got to automation and robotics. Once he’d had that experience, he couldn’t pass up the Andrews Middle School opportunity.

Smith said he got help from Andrews High School robotics teacher Louis Fleming.

The robotics program has grown since Smith arrived. Initially, he had three classes and now he has five. There are four teams with anywhere from four to eight students.

“I actually did this, I called it at the beginning of the year saying they would have the best team,” Smith said.

He noted that he is a teacher who doesn’t like doing things for the students. Whatever they accomplish, the students should get all the credit. But he doesn’t mind helping them fix something he told them to try if it didn’t work.

“… So everything that they did, or were able to do, was all them. It had nothing to do with me. I’m kind of different in that regard. I don’t want to help them, even though I do. I mean I’ll give them ideas and help them, but as far as building or coding, I’ll show them how to do it initially, but then I let them choose where they want to go from there,” Smith said.

Members of the “Rapture Raptors” robotics team test drive their robot during an interview Thursday afternoon, March 3, 2022, at Andrews Middle School. (Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

When he’s not teaching robotics, he has a sixth-grade exploration technology class where he teaches students how to use Google Suite, Google Docs, Google Sheets and Google Slides. He also teaches students about digital citizenship.

Now that students know him and they’ve heard about the robotics program, Smith said they are more interested in it.

A showcase is planned for March 28 and younger students will get a glimpse of what they could be doing.

“They’ll be able to see all the robots that are built because my whole thing has always been wanting to get more girls to take it. This year I think I’ve had the highest number of girls signed up to take it,” Smith said.

He said he wanted more girls involved “because they’re better at it.”

Smith said girls listen better. The Rapture Raptors absorbed information on how the competition worked; if a team helped them they wrote thank-you letters; and for the last competition Morgan and Killingsworth baked many cookies to distribute to other teams.

“All of that matters in the bigger scheme of things like team culture,” Smith said.

They got second place in the motivation award.

The robotics competitions are competitive, but cooperative at the same time, Smith said.

“It’s like a weird dynamic. … They call it gracious professionalism, but it’s like that weird dynamic of seeing a bunch of kids trying to compete against each other and win while simultaneously not talking trash to each other …,” Smith said.

Andrews Middle School eighth grader Georgia Morgan, 13, left, moves her team’s robot as she takes it for a test drive during an interview Thursday afternoon, March 3, 2022, at Andrews Middle School. (Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

Morgan said she joined the team because she’s always been interested in building.

“It’s always been one of my passions. I’m a really big fan of engineering … I just had a calling to do it,” Morgan said.

Killingsworth said she wanted to get into robotics because it seemed like a fun class.

“And I kind of wanted to code because I knew that that was something with robotics …,” Killingsworth said.

Winegar said she wanted to work on her teambuilding.

“… I didn’t work really well with the team up until now and I didn’t want to take athletics,” Winegar said.

She also learned to code, even though she didn’t want to but ended up finding it “really fun.”

Azam said she wanted to learn everything. Smith said one of her best attributes is her work ethic and that she has no problem doing whatever needs to be done.

“We learned coding last year in exploration technology and I thought it was kind of fun, so I joined robotics and then I found that there was building,” which Azam said she enjoyed.

Winegar added that communication is key and they have had to work on it because Azam is in a different period than they are. They used Google Docs to communicate.

But they said Azam would come in on her own without nudging.

Morgan said they struggled to get along with others, but the team has helped.

“… It helps us work over issues … through just everything. It really helps us learn to work with other people, because I personally am not one to always ask for help. And so I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to be on a team that is helpful …,” she added.

All but Winegar said they would continue in robotics.

“It’s basic building skills, so it gives you that and then if you want to get into coding, you can learn block coding,” Winegar said. “And then like Georgia said, it helps build social interactions. …”

Killingsworth said she has learned to communicate with people through the competitions, because you have to interview other teams sometimes to get information before the rounds start.

Smith said he has noticed his students have changed for the better through being part of the robotics team. They have come out of their shells.

“… It’s been really cool to see them change from how they were last year to this year and so what’s going to be fun for me next year is I’ll still be able to see them compete. And like Tess, she’ll know what it’s like, which they didn’t really know this year because this was really their first year doing it. But it has been fun to see them change, even personality wise of not arguing as much,” Smith said.

Members of the “Rapture Raptors” robotics team test drive their robot during an interview Thursday afternoon, March 3, 2022, at Andrews Middle School. (Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

They also have learned to stand up for themselves. Some boys on one of the high school teams at the UTPB contest were trying to mock them, but Morgan put them in their place, which Smith said they probably weren’t expecting.

There are several phases to the contest — the autonomous phase, which is 30 seconds; the driver control phase, which is two minutes long with the last 30 seconds being something called the Endgame, which adds other ways to score points.

In the autonomous phase, there was a barrier and the girls’ robot could just drive over it without any issues. There were other robots that got stuck, Smith said.

“There are four teams that compete at all times and you’ll be on alliance with them. It’s all randomly generated so they could be on teams with other Andrews middle school teams, or Andrews high school teams, Midland Legacy or UTPB STEM. So it’s all random. There are two on each team and they just go for two and a half minutes and they do five matches for competition,” Smith said.

He added that he wouldn’t be able to have his robotics team and the equipment without the school district.

“They have truly given me the resources to be successful,” Smith said.

He said the support was always there and the parental involvement has been awesome, as well.

The girls have found that having an all girls team is empowering and that regardless of their gender people thought their robot was cool.

Morgan added that she remembers that a lot of siblings came and they thought it was cool that there was an all girls team.

“We are one of the very few (girls teams) and FTC (FIRST Tech Challenge) is a really big thing among other schools. It’s a really big thing and it’s kind of a very empowering thing to be one of the all girls ones, encouraging more girls,” Morgan said.