Hunter Sessa is a 17-year-old senior at all-girls school the Agnes Irwin School in Philadelphia. And, when she’s not studying, or running track and field, she’s building robots.
“Ever since I was little I’ve loved building things, designing and creating things,” she says over the phone, “and as I got into middle school that progressed to robots.”
Sessa is part of Agnes Irwin’s Femme Tech Fatale team, which is now in its 17th year. The team is one of hundreds across the country that compete in the annual FIRST Robotics Competition, in which teams are given six weeks to build a robot that can complete a specific challenge — like stacking crates or shooting hoops — before pitting that robot against their peers’ creations.
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“It’s so amazing to go to these competitions and see all these girls who love engineering and robotics come together with the same goal,” says Sessa. “To be surrounded by people who you know are nerds, too.”
Femme Tech Fatale is illustrative of a larger trend to get high-schoolers — and particularly high school girls — into science, technology, engineering and math, or the STEM subjects.
“Technology and engineering — they’re not necessarily frowned upon, but they’re still not seen by girls themselves as a field that they should necessarily be striving for,” says Femme Tech Fatale adviser Jim Mathisen, who also teaches math and physics at the school.
“So giving these girls the opportunity to make their own robot and really have control over building it from the ground up — molding metal together, programming it, installing the motors, doing the electrical board — really shows them that they have the ability to be in any type of STEM field.”
Indeed, Sessa — who plans on going to college for either mechanical engineering or robotics — has devoted a lot of energy to showing her colleagues just that. Her sophomore year, she and her friends launched a STEM club, and now the 40-member group is planning an expo for middle-school girls in the Philadelphia area to get them excited about math and science.
“I think girls are much more responsive when they’re hearing about these subjects from their peers and doing activities and having fun,” says Sessa. “We want to show them that science isn’t just lectures.”