Our future doctors and engineers rarely get the bright lights and applause their athletic-focused counterparts receive, which is why a recent Phoenix Suns game was so special for the students of the Sonoran Foothills Middle School robotics team – the ‘Robobcats’ took the court at halftime to receive some well-deserved recognition for their passion and dedication in solving real-world STEM problems.

For four years running the Robobcats, led by their coach Mary-Ann Cawley, have participated in the international FIRST Robotics Competition. Beyond showcasing the capabilities of the robots that students from across the globe have built, the competition also challenges them to discover creative solutions to real-world STEM challenges. For the past two years, the Robobcats have taken home the Project Award for Innovative Solutions.

“Robotics club isn’t just about building robots,” says Cawley, now in her seventh year of coaching robotics. “It gives students the opportunity to be creative, to be problem solvers, to think critically about life’s different challenges.”

This year’s competition theme – “Into Orbit” – challenges students to address problems faced by astronauts during extended space travel. The Robobcats, like most normal middle schools students, were soon embroiled in the complex world of bacterial behavior and growth in zero-gravity conditions. To address astronaut’s reliance on disposable clothing and clunky sanitation methods, the Robobcats set to work developing a prototype for what they dubbed an “anti-bacterial recycling wash” for outfitting space shuttles. The mechanics of this zero-g washing machine are far beyond the comprehension of this writer, but suffice to say these middle-school students are wicked smart.

Excitement for the robotics program has only grown since Cawley brought the program to Sonoran Foothills four years ago, and for a moment it seemed that demand would outpace supply; budgets allowed for just two robotics kits each year, keeping the club size limited to about twenty seventh-and-eighth-graders. But thanks to support from APS’s STEM mini-grant program, Cawley will be able to expand the size and scope of the club to purchase more robotics kits and include a greater number of students, including sixth-graders.

“Robotics has made a huge impact in not just my life at school, but in my personal life too,” says Maximus Putrus, an eighth-grader in his first year as a part of the club. “It gives us all a sense of family when we are in Robotics Club. I’ve improved tremendously in my leadership and communication skills.”

Cawley can already see the impact the club will have on her students’ life trajectory, even for those with ambitions outside the world of STEM: “They have the passion and the power to do whatever they want to. It’s up to us to give them the opportunities and experiences that show them what they’re truly capable of.”

The Robobcats will showcase their year of hard work at Sonoran Foothills STEM Night on May 8.