Abbie Henshaw ‘20

Robotics: Building a World of Self Discovery

By Laetitia Haddad '20

June 2019 Profile Issue 

In case you weren’t aware, Abbie Henshaw builds robots. She’s pretty good at it too - her team, Thunderstone, just competed at the Worlds competition in Detroit, and Abbie was selected as a Dean’s List Finalist, one of four from the state of Virginia.

 

Abbie was exposed to the world of robotics from a young age. “So, my sister started a robotics team out of my basement when I was a third grader,” remarked Abbie, laughing, when I asked her the classic how-long-have-you-been-doing-robotics question. As an eight year old, Abbie was obsessed, and would watch her sister’s friends build robots to solve problems. “As soon as I was a fourth grader, and as soon as I could start my own team, I did it immediately.”

 

Within our school community, robotics is a bit of an enigma. We hear a lot about the team's victories, but are not as in tune with how the robotics program actually works. As a junior, Abbie took Robotics V with two of her senior teammates during the fall semester. This class served as a platform for competition season, where most of the sketching and designing was completed.

 

When in the midst of competition season, the rigor of the robotics schedule ramps up for Abbie. “I’ll go to robotics during F period, stay through my G free to build, and then I’ll stay after school,” she explained. “I’ve stayed at school until 10pm before just cause I was building”. Abbie’s unfaltering commitment to robotics is both a blessing and a curse. “I’m a very busy person in general,” she remarked, “and I’ve been trying now for four years to prevent myself from having to choose between things I enjoy doing.”

 

Often times, Abbie’s dedication to robotics can result in stress and sleep deprivation, which are added pressures on top of her already hefty workload as a junior. “I also take a lot of APs,” she mentioned, explaining that one of the biggest lessons she has learned throughout high school has been understanding what her limits are.

 

Perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of Abbie’s robotics accomplishments is the fact that she is able to participate in robotics with full enthusiasm while maintaining some semblance of balance in the rest of her life. Her 3am emails may reveal a bit more about her shaky sleep schedule than she might hope, but the gusto with which she participates in all areas of school life gives the outward appearance of someone in control.

 

One of the most stressful months for Abbie is November, when all of her various interests (none of which she can stomach giving up) intersect. “November is the [Stage One Players’] play season,” she explained, and she participates in the technical and sound aspects of the production. “It’s the start of my gymnastics season, and the also the start of robotics”. During this month especially, Abbie finds herself a bit stretched thin as the first robotics competition of the year is a big deal - doing well in this initial competition could mean instant qualification for the States.

 

To many, failure is not appealing. For Abbie, there is something rewarding about making mistakes. “I really love the process of building something… I think because I started it so young, I’m a lot more accepting of when you build something and it doesn’t work.” She recognizes that,  for a lot of people that’s really scary… I just find it really exciting to try to find a new way to solve a problem. The whole repetition of a process, like keep on making small changes until you make it perfect, is really satisfying.”

 

Abbie is the only girl on her team, and her opinions on being a girl in the field of robotics has changed over time. For instance, Abbie recalled that when she was younger, “the girl STEM movement? I hated it. I was like, that’s stupid! Just work with the boys!” She found herself trying to make herself one of the guys. “I was trying to distance myself from my femininity, Abbie reflected. “I was being mean to other girls, tearing them down, because I felt that the only way I could be accepted in the field of STEM was to be one of the guys.”

A pivotal moment in Abbie’s outlook on the convergence of gender and robotics occurred last summer. “I went to Gov School, and I hung out with all girls. I realized that you could be a woman in STEM, and still be a girl. All the girls were so smart, but they were just being who they were.”

 

Despite learning these lessons, Abbie is still frank about the challenges she will continue to face. She stated that, “I know that in my future, I’m going into a field where I will be looked down upon because I’m a girl. I also know that that has value, too.”

 

For Abbie, robotics is a task of constant metamorphosis on both a physical and mental level.  “If you had a paper in a class,” she pointed out, “that’s it. But when you have a robot, and we go to one competition and this one thing doesn’t work, we can change it - it’s constant progress.” Perpetual forward progress, and a drive to perfect imperfections, sustain Abbie’s inquisitive mind that is so eager to create without the boundaries of time or gender.