How I Engineered and Built a 3D Printed Robotic Arm – by Sofia M, 9th grade

My name is Sofia M, and I am a 9th grader at Croatan High School. Ever since I could remember I have had a love for engineering, design concepts, and building. It all started when I was little, I had shelves and shelves of Lego sets. Every Christmas I would ask for Lego sets to build while most girls asked for dolls. It wasn’t a secret that I wasn’t interested in the same things. Even now as a teenager I asked for a workbench for my birthday and girls my age asked for clothes. 

I came across the robotics club in elementary school. My brother had done it before me and always loved it, so of course, I had to try too. I fell in love with it as soon as I started.  We designed and programmed EV3 robots. Something about the programming to complete missions and the redesigning of the robot for improvements made me realize this is what I have always wanted to do. The very next birthday I got an EV3 robot as my present and entered it into my school science fair. All throughout middle school, every time I got put into an art class, I requested to be switched to PLTW (Project Lead the Way), an engineering class. My family and I always thought this class would benefit me more than an art class. 

When Corona hit, my usual NC State engineering camp got canceled. Therefore, I started to enter in all of these engineering contests. I spent weeks designing things to enter and let me just tell you, I had a lot of failures. I had to push through and eventually succeeded. The first contest I entered in the middle school division, I won first place. I built a catapult from wood. In the last two contests, I entered into the high school division (as an 8th grader) and won first place for both. I built a wind-powered electrical system to make noise and a water-powered rocket with a parachute. 

As you can see engineering and STEM are big parts of my life. Even now, I am in the process of designing and building a 3D printed robotic arm to enter in the North Carolina Southeast regional science fair. I have been working on it for the last couple of months. I used Fusion 360 to design the parts and 3D print them with my XYZ printer. Most of the time my project consists of reprints and improvements. I would design and print it out and come to realize I did the wrong measurements or it does not work properly. If you don’t know, failure is a big part of engineering. This is when perseverance and determination comes into play. When doing a project or designing things, you will likely have to redesign it multiple times to get it to work. This is my favorite part of engineering, you fail so many times in your design but eventually get to the point where it works. The sense of pride you feel after all of the hard work is worth it at the end. This makes me feel so proud and unstoppable when I finally accomplish what seems like the impossible. 

Engineers use the design process when it comes to solving a problem, but what some people don’t know is that this process can teach you so many things. For my robotic arm, I have to learn Python coding which can be very complicated to learn. It’s like learning a new language. Learning this code now will make me very valuable in the job search. Python coding is considered a very valuable skill to have. I get asked all the time “what I love about my robotic arm?” and “why am I so excited about it?” I love the sense of pride I got when I got the base to turn on the motor for the first time or the rush I get when on Fusion 360 and I am designing all original parts by myself. Honestly, I love everything about it. I get told all the time “it is so impressive you are building this, most kids your age don’t know how to do this”. I started out the exact way every other kid would if they aspired to be an engineer or take on a project like this. I started with the basics, research! 

From there everything fell into place I knew what electrical parts I needed and what original parts I had to design that was a must-have for the function of the arm. It always helped that my dad was an engineer that I could bounce ideas off of, but I don’t need him. When I started the project I reached out to engineering organizations, like IGNITE, to sponsor me or to just give me some guidance. I contacted 4 engineers that offered to set up virtual meetings for the bouncing of ideas or just as a mentor. I got most of my robotic arm project paid for by just reaching out to people. My dad said from the very beginning getting the funding for your project is a big part of the field. You don’t have to have a parent who is an engineer to guide you into the STEM careers. If you have a love for engineering or science there are so many mentors you can get in touch with to help you, It’s just a matter of you wanting to put in the work. For the past 3 or 4 years, I have wanted to be a biomedical engineer. I put in the work during middle school and hope to continue in high school to accomplish my dream. 

I feel like a lot of girls my age would rather be shopping or gushing over boys and maybe this why the engineering field doesn’t have a lot of female interest. It might be because of the lack of guidance or the perfect picture society has put out as what girls should do. Engineering is not just an interest for me it is a passion. It can be for you too, so don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and not do what most girls this age do. We need more women engineers in society and even the world!