Carnegie Mellon University
February 20, 2020

Student Spotlight: Shannon Werntz and the Girls of Steel

By Cameron Monteith

Stacy Kish
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-9309

Shannon Werntz is a sophomore in Dietrich College, majoring in Decision Science with a minor in Business Administration. While pursuing her studies at Carnegie Mellon University, Shannon volunteers as an awards mentor with a local all-girls robotics team that is part of the FIRST robotics competition (FRC).  For Werntz, it’s not business as usual when FRC competition season rolls around.

FRC is a national program that brings together teams of high school students who construct robots that face-off during local and regional competitions. The program also helps to foster interest in STEM fields for girls and boys from K-12. 

Before coming to Carnegie Mellon, Shannon was a member of her local FIRST Robotics team in West Virginia. As soon as Shannon was accepted into CMU, she knew she wanted to continue with the FIRST robotics program. She now mentors the participants of the university’s Robotics Institute’s FRC team, Girls of Steel.

“Being on an FRC team completely shaped me throughout high school, so it almost felt required for me to pay that forward and help provide that experience to these girls who are in the same position that I was in four years ago,” Werntz said. “I really committed myself to the organization and was guided by my own fearless and inspiring mentors.”

Getting in contact with the program following high school wasn’t as hard as Shannon first thought.

“The team has a great relationship with CMU since the university provides us with workspace, mentors and a practice field,” said Werntz. “Girls of Steel itself is one of the Robotics Institute's flagship outreach programs and is helping to build a future generation of experienced females excited about diving into fields like computer science which are too often thought of as boys clubs.”

FRC teams focus a lot of effort on being a STEM outreach programs, so the Girls of Steel students not only work on constructing robots for competition, but they also engage with the local community to engage their peers in STEM activities. The team dedicates hundreds of hours annually to community outreach, such as attending tech nights at schools and running, funding and mentoring elementary and middle school robotics teams through lower-level robotics programs like the FIRST Lego League.

“For example, last semester I was at the Pittsburgh Maker Faire and SciTech Academy's tech night with the team,” says Werntz. “At those events we usually bring our ‘Chassis Project,’ which is an approximately 50-lb robot that people can build and then drive around.” 

According to Werntz, with the Chassis Project kit, Girls of Steel students guide community members through step-by-step instructions for assembly and disassembly so people will come to the team’s table to help construct a full robot and immediately drive it. The goal is to instill in people that anyone can build a robot.  

“It's not some scary process,” said Werntz. “You don’t have to be a super-genius to accomplish [it].”

As an awards mentor, Shannon works with her team in coordinating and taking part in these community outreach events. Shannon and the team also work on communicating their local impact to FIRST judges through videos, presentations, written submissions and magazines and pamphlets.

Shannon has noticed how her perspective has changed after becoming a mentor. While in high school she focused on winning awards in the robotics program, she now aims at fostering leadership and confidence in the girls.

“As a mentor, the biggest victories will be when everyone is brainstorming ideas for, say, designing a new poster and the quiet new girl throws out a genius idea so the other girls start to excitedly build off her idea, and you can see her visibly perk up and gain some more confidence,” said Werntz. “That sticks with you.”

The Girls of Steel will compete Feb 27–29 in the Miami Valley Regional, at the Wright State University Nutter Center in Fairborn, Ohio, as well as March 19–21 in the Greater Pittsburgh Regional at the California University of Pennsylvania Convocation Center.

“Being so close in age to many of the girls, I try to be a really positive role model to them,” said Werntz. “Someone who they can trust and lean on, and someone who they see has a real passion for the STEM empowerment message of FIRST and who is a communicative, confident leader.”