Pink Mamba mentality: McAllen all-girl robotics team advocates for women in STEM

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The Pink Mambas, an all-girls robotics team from McAllen’s James Nikki Rowe High School, takes their mamba mentality and passion for STEM to encourage other girls to break stereotypes and follow their dreams no matter the obstacles.

With 10 members in the Pink Mambas, seniors Elizabeth Ruiz, Nayelie Cavazos, and junior Sarah Ortiz stepped up as leaders this year and have gone above and beyond to have their team known on campus, at robotics competitions and, most importantly, when they visit campuses to promote STEM to younger girls.

The Pink Mambas are a robotics club that participates in First in Texas, an organization empowering students across the state for success in STEM fields by offering support, facilitating STEM activities and organizing training and inclusive events.

Going by a different name before, the three girls rebranded this year to the Pink Mambas, something that they say identifies and feels more personal to them.

Elizabeth Ruiz, left, and Nayelie Cavazos of the Pink Mambas all-girl robotics team control “Bella” at Nikki Rowe High School on Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Not afraid to have pink in the name and in their logo, Ruiz, also a varsity basketball player, said the mamba part comes from her favorite player Kobe Bryant’s mamba mentality.

Ortiz, the president of the Pink Mambas, said one of the group’s main focuses is to promote girls in STEM at a young age. She said building that interest and hopefully getting them engaged at a young age will carry on when they get to high school and pursue a career in STEM.

Growing up, Ortiz said she never saw any girls in STEM which made her think it was only for boys.

“I just thought girls can’t really do engineering. It’s too hard,” she said. “But the second that I really put myself in there, and I’ve made that effort I could see myself doing it in the long run and being able to be that role model for these kids being able to see a girl in engineering, leading a whole robotics team. It’s just really important to have that representation.”

“Bella” is placed on a course by a member of the robotics team at Nikki Rowe High School on Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Seeing herself in the little girls when they visit other schools, Ortiz said it is inspiring to see a girl that doesn’t want to speak out in front of a big group of boys gain confidence in themselves.

Cavazos, who plans to study engineering at UTRGV said she also agrees that representation is important and especially at a young age when little girls might not think STEM has a space for them and get discouraged.

“It’s a great feeling, just feeling like you made a difference in a little girl’s life and hopefully taught them like a lesson that they’ll carry with them and will take them far in life,” she said.

Elizabeth, who plans to also study engineering at Texas A&M College Station, was first introduced into robotics in middle school and said it was not easy being in a group full of boys.

Left to right, Sarah Ortiz, Elizabeth Ruiz and Nayelie Cavazos of the Pink Mambas all-girls robotics team pose next to “Bella” at Nikki Rowe High School on Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“It was very harsh because I was the only girl … and discouraging when you have other guys tell you, ‘you can’t do it,’” she said. “So I didn’t want that for future females. I wanted to set an example for the future of girls in STEM. And I wanted to show them that not only are we girls but we can do what other men can do better … I don’t want them to shy away from STEM.

“If they’re really passionate about it, I really want them to pursue it.”

Elizabeth said people usually have a shocked reaction and reinforce stereotypes when she speaks about wanting to study mechanical engineering.

“I want to take on that challenge because I’m not about to back down from all these stereotypes saying that only men can do it,” she said. “It’s not just for men and that’s what I want to prove to everyone and myself that I can do it. “

“Bella” takes to the course at Nikki Rowe High School on Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Utilizing her pink mamba mentality, Ruiz said one of her future goals is to break the stereotype of being a woman in a male-dominated field by hopefully creating a program to help young girls pursue a STEM career.

Led by Rowe teachers David Ruiz, Elizabeth’s father, and Juan Betancourt, David said he had initial doubts about the rebrand of the team but said it was a hit this year and hopes it’s going to stick around for a while.

He said he is proud of what the Pink Mambas were able to accomplish this year and how their passion to promote women in STEM has grown the robotics program.

Given the opportunity to attend training across the nation, David said talking about the Pink Mambas to other schools has gotten extremely positive reactions, especially from other girls in the STEM field.

Parts of the robot can be seen at Nikki Rowe High School on Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“So that made me feel a lot better about what I was trying to do here,” he said. “And that was to give the girls a voice, give them an opportunity to try and fail and help each other out, help each other grow.”

Winning several awards this year at competitions for their motivation and outreach efforts, their main piece of advice is to not be afraid of failure.

“If you have a passion for it, stick with it,” Cavazos said. “Don’t let other people try to stray you away or discourage you.”

Growing a tight bond within the Pink Mambas this year alongside their passion for STEM, Elizabeth and Cavazos are set to graduate in a few months and hope the strong womanhood carries on for years at Rowe high school.