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In profile: Rachel Pannowitz (Year 12)

April 6, 2018

Year 12 student Rachel Pannowitz recently led her robotics team to the final of the 2018 Southern Cross Regional competition, picking up the most creative award. She then led the team to the quarter-finals of the Southern Cross Regionals FIRST Robotics Competition against top international teams, where their robot won the Innovation in Controls Award which “celebrates an innovative control system or application of control components – electrical, mechanical, or software – to provide unique machine functions”. This was the team’s best ever result. Anthony Segaert spoke to Rachel to discover what interests her about robotics and competing as part of a team. 

How did you get involved in making robots?

I am in Sydney University’s High School Robotics Team, made up of high school students all across Sydney, not just from one school. We take part in the FIRST Robotics Competition, where each year you get a different game or a different outline to incorporate into your build to bring about a solution. Then you compete with teams from all around the world in the competitions, which is really exciting. We build the robot over six weeks and then start competing nationally and internationally.

What type of robots do you make?

These robots are around 60 kilograms (see the team entry, right), so they’re fairly big! This year’s game was basically ‘capture the flag’ but for robots. You have to get these big milk crates and put them on this massive see-saw that’s six feet high, and there are smaller see-saws that you have to gain ownership of. You have to defend against other robots while still getting points and helping your team out, because you’re paired with two other random robots from other teams. Each team has a different strategy, so before each round, you have to go and devise a strategy. So someone might be on defence, and someone will be running cubes back and forth!

Can you tell me about your role as captain? What does that entail?

Being captain is basically organising and finding the right person for each job, making sure things get done. I always have to ensure deadlines are met, because we have limited time, and we have to build the robot! Within the team, there’s me, and I have a vice captain who helps me out. And we organise all the finances. If we go overseas, we organise that trip and the competition. We do have adult mentors but they stay at a distance to ensure it is a student-run team. We’re the ones that recruit and teach all the students that are new every year. We had 30 new students this year, and we used to be a team of eight, so it was really difficult but it’s all about them learning as well.

Was it challenging being the only girl in the 40-member team?

It was very weird at first. It took a while to get used to working with some of the guys on the team. They thought that one of the reasons I was selected was because I was a girl, and it looked good for STEM. At first you have to get through those stereotypes and remind people it is because of your skills and organisation that you’re chosen. My team has been really accepting and welcoming. I don’t feel any different from the guys. They give me just as much opportunity to speak as they have, and they listen to me as well, which I find really good. But it can be a bit intimidating sometimes when you’re the only girl in the room!

How did you first discover an interest in robotics?

It was completely random! I was on the Sydney University website looking up engineering since I was vaguely interested in it but knew nothing about it. This was in Year 9 or Year 10. On the bottom, there was a tiny banner that said, “Come and see the robotics team”. So I dragged my friend along and I ended up joining. A year later I became captain! They teach you everything you need to know when you join.

It’s worked really well with school. I do subjects like physics and design and technology and it works really well with those subjects because you’re applying what you’re learning.

How has SACS supported you in this endeavour?

My design and technology teacher, Mr Bacewicz, has been great. When I did software, my teacher Mr Thill was intrigued by it and started a Zero Robotics mini team at school. They’re very supportive and make sure my school work isn’t too affected by it. My parents are 100 per cent behind me too and have been able to help me out when I need to organise things or when I’m stressed.

Has the robotics team experience been valuable?

I feel like it teaches you skills that you can’t learn in a classroom. It’s very hands on and the experience is something you can’t get anywhere else. The things you learn can apply to real life. We’re doing things that first, second and third-year uni students are doing. It’s so exciting to know that we’re getting to that level and that we’re continuously improving.