Absarokee High School’s robotics team stood out among those gathered in Montana State University’s Shroyer Gym Friday for the FIRST Tech Challenge tournament.

It wasn’t because the teammates were wearing bright orange t-shirts or that they were rookies participating in the annual competition. Absarokee’s team is unique because it’s made up of four young women, aged 13 to 18, and a female coach.

Heidi Gunderson, an English and computer science teacher, said she started a girls robotics team at Absarokee High this year to make girls feel more comfortable in trying something new. She teaches a free robotics camp each summer and found some interested participants, including her daughter, Callan, and made the team official.

“This is the most positive educational experience I’ve ever been a part of,” Gunderson said.

The girls have spent every day at lunch since August, some weekends and over the holidays working on their robot, Gunderson said.

The team competed in Friday’s tournament that pitted robots against one another under strict rules and limited time. It’s a race for the bots to move blocks from one end of a course to another, and part of it requires the machines to move autonomously in a test of programming.

Absarokee senior Maggie Howes, 18, said the team didn’t know much about engineering or programming when they first started designing their robot. She said they’ve made six different versions at this point.

“There’s been a huge learning curve,” Howes said.

Howes said she wants to study mechanical engineering in college with the possibility of moving into aerospace engineering.

Women and minorities have long been underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Although statistics show representation is improving, the National Science Board found in 2018 that women make up only 28% of the science and engineering workforce.

Increasing diversity in robotics competitions is a goal of FIRST, according to Ed Huth, regional organizer for the nonprofit. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) puts on the robotics competition at MSU and others around the country. The organization founded 30 years ago aims to encourage students to study in a STEM field.

“I want to get more and more teams involved, and more diverse teams,” Huth said.

Huth said teams that have competed in MSU’s competition, which has been running since 2005, have been successful in regional competitions. One team from Sun River Valley School District has gone to the world championships four out of five years, Huth said.

On Saturday, FIRST will host Lego League competitions for elementary and middle school teams in which robots made from Lego kits will carry out “missions” on pool table-sized fields. Between three competitions, 120 teams from around the region are participating.

Michael Edens, an MSU teaching professor of mechanical engineering, helped judge Friday’s competition and said it’s more than just completing tasks. Judges consider things like design, innovation and motivation when evaluating a team’s robot.

Edens said the competition is a great way to introduce students to STEM.

“It certainly helps get a number of them interested. And it gives them a sense of what engineering and computer science are like,” Edens said.

Absarokee freshman Monique Mondragon, 15, wanted to join the robotics team after learning about computer programming from her older brother.

“He was designing a video game and I thought it looked really cool, and thought maybe I could do it, too,” Mondragon said.

The two other teammates, Allison Howes, 14, and Callan, 13, both said they grew up playing with Legos and like building things. Gunderson said that enjoying the design and engineering process is a must when putting in months of work.

“Their dedication has been phenomenal,” Gunderson said.

Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.

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