Jeanine Heck is new.
The Comcast Senior Director of Product Development has been working in software for 15 years, including the last eight at Comcast. She also is a graduate of Saint Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Northeast Philadelphia. But it’s only been since January that she’s been a mentor of the high school’s still-new all-girls robotics club.
She first met her team at the unveiling of this year’s challenge in the FIRST Robotics Competition, the iconic national network of robot-building competitions. Heck meets with the 18 young women weekly — this weekend, her team will be competing in a qualifying event. But Heck isn’t alone — 100 other Comcast employees help mentor the 36 FIRST teams the company sponsors, including several at Saint Hubert’s.
“It is like a business. This authentic learning sets kids up well on how to work in the business world, which is why we love it,” said Comcast Technical Advisor Theresa Hennesy. “It gives them the right mental and social skills boosted by their own intellectual curiosity to solve a problem and come up with something very creative.”
Hennesy has been mentoring The Firebirds from Mount Saint Joseph Academy, another all-girls school, from Flourtown, Pa., for two years now. She has seen the steady progression of students involved with FIRST Robotics and is eagerly awaiting the results of this year’s competition.
“The students I worked with [spoke at an event] this past year and I saw how poised they were up there,” Hennesy said. “They talked about how they worked together, how they collaborate creatively to build something. It’s inspired a lot of women from WICT, Women in Cable and Telecommunications, on how they can help bring others into this program to participate as well.”
So when Heck, a 1995 Hubert’s alumna, decided to take on the volunteer role, she sought advice from her experienced peers who also took the time to mentor local teams, whether it be their alma mater or another local team.
“Our team is so new and there is such a wide spectrum of proficiency. Our team is still really learning the ropes. Our aim is to build a working robot that can get in the field and compete that day,” said Heck, also a graduate of Penn and Columbia. “There are teams that focus on the design and the beauty of their robot. For us, it’s really just the functioning robot.”
The Saint Hubert’s team, dubbed The BambieBotz — yes the school’s mascot is a deer named Bambie — will be like clubs across the country competing in this year’s challenge, or “game,” called “Recycle Rush.” Students are required to build remote-controlled robots to maneuver and stack plastic garbage cans, hard-sided crates, both with a swimming pool noodle inside.
Hubert’s has one of the city’s largest all-female athletics programs, so robotics is a natural addition. Heck fits to take on the robotics mentorship role at the school, which has a strong alumni network — in 2012, they fought back plans from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to close the school, following sagging enrollment.
Already, the BambieBotz club has something of a track record: they received a “Rookie All-Star Award” from FIRST for their early spirit in 2013, their first year of competition. Although, that was a great achievement, Heck is striving for more.
“One of the things I’m helping the team with is fundraising. It’s important to think in terms of a business,” she said. “We have to think long-term for the team and just getting by from year to year can’t be the goal anymore.”
The FIRST program has grabbed interest from girls on the team who are definite in pursuing STEM majors in college after they graduate high school and those who are highly considering it.
“I see myself in these girls, and I see the potential in them and I know the potential my classmates all had when I was there,” Heck said. “I would love to see more people go into engineering than we had back then. This is a great way that I can affect the ratio of girls to boys in technology. It’s the most impactful way that I can affect the change that I want.”
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