Century Robotics

Junior Mihika Shah reattaches part of the ball retrieval mechanism on her teams robot during teacher Buck Ferrin's after school robotics program at Century High School on Tuesday, March 18th. (Noah Scialom, Patuxent Homestead / March 18, 2014)

Members of the all-girls Century High School robotics team that qualified for the VEX Robotics World Championship in Anaheim next month don't like to brag about beating teams of all boys.

But asked twice about how it feels to advance in a field dominated by boys, they cracked a sly smile and admitted that it feels "pretty good" to beat their male counterparts.

"They seem to dominate this field," Grayson Miller said. "It feels good to prove that we belong and that we can do it."

The junior is among the four girls on the school's Clockwork Knights robotics team that out of 72 teams qualified for the world competition in California April 23-26 by earning the Design Award at the March 8 state Vex Robotics Championship held at the Carroll County Ag Center. She is joined on the team by fellow juniors Katie Biggs and Mihika Shah and senior Mary-Kate Bull.

The statewide Design Award recognizes students for meticulous documentation of how they programmed and built their robot.

VEX Robotics competitions require students to build and program a robot based upon a specific game each year. Throughout the school year, competitions are held to see which robot best handles the game.

This year's game, Toss Up, required robots to move colored buckyballs and large balls into goal areas on a 12-by-12-foot field, according to the VEX Robotics website. There are a total of 20 buckyballs and eight large balls available as scoring objects in the game, according to the website. Teams with the most points at the end win.

Next month, the Century team will compete in Toss Up against teams from Canada, China, France, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea, among others.

The girls are the first team from Century to qualify for the world competition.

Buck Ferrin, the robotics team coach and a science teacher at the high school in Eldersburg, said this year has "by far" been the most successful of his four years leading the school's robotics club.

While making it to the world competition has always been a goal, Ferrin said this year's achievement has been "one heck of a hard ordeal" since the qualifying process was changed this year to limit the number of teams.

To qualify for the world event this year, teams must have qualified at the state level and only the state's 15 best teams would be represented.

Ferrin said having an all-girl team is unique, and estimated that seeing a field with 10 percent female competitors is a lot.

"This speaks volumes about them," he said.

Although they have only a month to prepare, the girls said they have a few tweaks to make on their robot, such as making its chassis a bit faster and adjusting the angle of the intake to collect balls quicker.

For the girls on the team, the challenges of programming and team camaraderie is what they enjoy most.

"I absolutely love making robots and being creative with it," Shah said.

For her, like some of her teammates, having qualified for the worlds hasn't quite sunk in yet.

"It's surreal to think that we're actually going to meet people from across the world," she said.

In addition to networking with their counterparts from across the globe, the girls said they're looking forward to learning how other teams program their robots.

"I think just the experience of getting to go is going to be awesome for building the team and bringing us closer together and just learning so much from it," Biggs said.

Having qualified for the world event, they are still in the process of fundraising to pay their travel expenses.

Ferrin said the team will need to raise about $8,000 before the event. As of March 18, they had raised $6,500.

"They have been working very hard to be able to go," he said.

Business sponsors, such as WaveFront Technologies in Annapolis Junction and Ridge Engineering in Hampstead have chipped in, and one parent has pledged to pay the team's $750 entry fee, Ferrin said.

For the girls who have already had a chance to excel against their peers within Maryland, Ferrin said the Anaheim event offers an "invaluable experience to see how they compare with teams around the world."

"It's not just a competition, it's a networking and learning opportunity with kids from around the world who are the best at what they do," he said.