By Kim Harris Thacker P'24
To enter the Fabrication Lab at The Ethel Walker School is akin to entering a foreign country. Soon enough, though, the language that is spoken in the room begins to make sense, as does the landscape of the room and the culture of the Wirecats — the members of the Walker's robotics team — who work there. In truth, the "Fab Lab" is a friendly, hardworking space, where like-minded people and those whose interests lie far outside of the robotics world can be themselves. It is here that Hannah Schweitzer, a senior day student from Canton who has studied at Walker's since the sixth grade, engages in peer-to-peer conversations that are peppered with words like solenoids, pneumatics and effectors. It is here that Schweitzer has become confident with handling tools and pieces of machinery that range in size from truly enormous to so small as to exist only in the digital universe.
Schweitzer joined the Wirecats during her sophomore year at Walker's and has been an integral part of the team since that time. She counts many of her closest friends among her fellow Wirecats; but she also has friends and interests outside of robotics. She doesn't seem to have many casual interests, though: When she has an interest, she goes at it, whole-heartedly. As a result, she is currently the leader of several Walker's clubs and organizations.
"I'm the head of the Honor Board for Big 7; I'm the head of Rock Band, where I play the guitar; and in freshman year, two other girls and I started the debate club," she says. "Finally, as seniors, debate is a real club, and we go to real debates. Walker's has helped me with my leadership skills, how I talk and how I present myself."
In 2018, Schweitzer received a Yale Book Award for her outstanding character and intellectual promise. After she graduates, she will attend Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, where she plans to double-major in computer and electrical engineering. She explains that her interest in engineering comes from her time with the Wirecats...as well as a childhood interest in Legos.
"Legos were my big thing because my siblings, who are a lot older than me, always did them, and I wanted to do what they were doing," she says. These older siblings include a food scientist, a lawyer, and an army sergeant.
"I actually have a lot of military background," Schweitzer explains. "Aside from my brother, my mom was in the Army National Guard right out of high school, and my dad has a government surplus business that was my grandfather's. I took a lot of time last year deciding if I wanted to join the military. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to have more freedom after I graduate."
Schweitzer hasn't ruled out government work altogether, however. "I'd love to work for the FBI, doing something in nanotechnology," she says. "It would be so fun and challenging, because you're basically building a circuit board under a microscope on something the size of a mini M&M. Tiny circuit boards are in our phones right now, and we don't even think about them; we just take them for granted. Most of a phone is just its battery!"
Schweitzer loves circuits, which she is studying in her advanced physics class; but she also loves computer programming and would be interested in doing more of that. "I'm taking advanced computer science right now, and I'm so interested in how a computer interprets user data," she says. "It's all binary, which is so weird to think about."
Mind-bending concepts aren't anything new to Schweitzer. This past Wirecats season, she was in charge of the mechanics and design of the team's robot. She designed various robotic components using a CAD (Computer Aided Design) program called Solidworks. Walker's robotics lab owns a CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machine, which allowed Schweitzer to cut out the pieces she designed to the exact specifications that she laid out in her CAD design — an impressive feat for a soon-to-be high school graduate.
"The university I'm going to is small — about 3,000 students," Schweitzer says, "and seventy percent of those students are male, because it's an engineering school. Engineering, in general, is dominated by men, but especially electrical and computer engineering. That's why robotics at Walker's is so important. We're learning things that a lot of people learn in college, and they're things that we've proven that girls — including those my age — can do really well. I mean, we were the first all-girls team in New England to go to a world championship competition for robotics."
Although Schweitzer will soon leave behind her fellow Wirecats and a supportive school she has enjoyed attending for seven years, she is filled with excitement about the future. "I want to meet people that I have no commonalities with — who have different worldviews from mine," she says." It's time. I'm ready. I've got this. I have all the tools I need. Thank you, Walker's — I'm equipped! Now I'm ready to get out there!"