MCKINLEY PARK — Don't tell the girls who make up the Pink TechnoBots robotics squad they've built something cool.
"Not cool. Awesome," said Mariah Flores, a seventh-grader at Horizon Science Academy in McKinley Park.
Made up of four middle-schoolers, the team will bring its hand-built robot to the First Tech Challenge state tournament at the Illinois Institute of Technology on Saturday, when 32 teams from across the state will compete.
Some will be high-schoolers.
Most will be boys.
"When we're playing the boys [in previous matches], they're like, 'Oh, they're girls,' and they don't take us seriously," seventh-grader Alyssa Mejia said.
"They made us feel down, left out," added Karina Negrete, 14, an eighth-grader. "But you should never underestimate a girl."
The after-school robotics program, led by husband-and-wife Horizon teachers Ugur and Enisa Akgul, is a popular draw at the new charter school, which leaders say has a special focus on science, technology, engineering and math.
The Akguls said 28 Horizon students are involved in the robotics program, which so far has yielded four competitive teams in the school's inaugural year, plus a handful of students involved in the club. All of the teams are scheduled to compete on Saturday.
They're expecting more participants when Horizon opens its doors to ninth-graders next year, the next step in a four-year expansion at the school, run by the Des Plaines-based Concept Schools charter management company.
In the school's computer lab, the team showed off the capabilities of its robot, which carried a sign saying "Never Underestimate a Girl."
On Saturday, the girls will use joysticks to maneuver the robot within a small walled-off arena, scoring points by scraping up blocks and dumping them into bins and raising the robot's motorized arm to hang on a bar. Three other teams will try to do the same thing at the same time.
It all started with a sketch inside the girls' "engineering journal," basically a step-by-step diary of the project that details the robot's creation from a pile of donated parts to the roving, point-scoring machine it's become today.
Fast forward a few sacrificed Saturday afternoons — roughly five hours for each tinkering practice session — and the girls are confident they can hang with anybody, including the competitors from larger schools around the state, including high schools.
Win on Saturday, and the Pink TechnoBots are off to Iowa to compete in the First Tech Challenge super-regionals.
Win that, and they'll travel to St. Louis for the world championships to square off against teams from around the globe.
"They've got a shot," Enisa Akgul said. "That's what's amazing about it."