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photo by Adam Ewing
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Head coach Stevens (right) and volunteer Pete Robinson assist with adjustments to the TJ team’s competition robot. Photo by Jay Paul
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Hoops-shooting machines play out the engineering ambitions of high-school robotics teams in the Virginia FIRST Tech Challenge. Photo by Jay Paul
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James Kearney II, 16, (right) anchors the Thomas Jefferson robotics team as its only programmer and a designer of its sleek machine, B.O.T. His mom, Mary, helps shuttle him to his robotics activities. Photo by Jay Paul
Not even a throbbing bass line — Kenny Loggins' inspirational "Danger Zone" — can drown out the wild yelps and applause carrying across the packed bleachers of Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center. On the massive video monitor suspended above the Ram Nation's center court, the graceful arc of a basketball shot drops softly through the net, renewing the ecstatic convulsion of cheers.
Outside, Broad Street is in the full frothing heat of March Madness, but inside, VCU's Havoc defense is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the floor is literally crawling with what appear to be Star Wars-style droids shooting remarkably accurate lob shots at the hoop.
It's day one of the Virginia FIRST Tech Challenge "Rebound Rumble," and the competition, though still in its qualifying rounds, is fierce. Teams of tense-looking high-schoolers — mostly boys, mostly of the high-water pants and horn-rimmed glasses variety — ferry their homemade automatons back and forth from the action to a cordoned-off area that looks and functions something like a cross between NASA's mission control and a NASCAR-style pit row.
"Robot! Robot! Robot!" comes a yelping staccato order from a bookish-looking kid whose pubescent frame balances on stick-thin legs; he shoulders aside bystanders, clearing the way for his team wheeling their mechanized creation back to the "garage" pit on a gurney. A waiting team, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with their school name and team sponsor logos that include NASA and a major department-store chain, instantly tears at the machine with screw guns and pliers to make desperate repairs and minor tweaks.
The robots, more than 60 of them built by teams of high school students from around the state (and a few from beyond), follow a common engineering and design theme based on the requirements of this year's FIRST Robotics Competition, held March 16 and 17. The international nonprofit FIRST program — its acronym means "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology" — was founded by famed Segway inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to mentor students in fields of innovation, perhaps motivating them to become engineers or scientists.
To pick up the basketballs, each robot's loading mechanism, usually a set of mechanical arms, hoists balls into a launcher that fires the balls toward baskets positioned at either end of the not-so-regulation basketball court. These distant kin to R2-D2 mostly take the basic form of awkwardly constructed model-rocket gantries or untrustworthy apartment elevators on wheels. Many tower 4 or 5 feet high, so their centers of gravity are uncertain despite their broad chassis.
The top teams tend to fit neatly into common groupings: prestigious and wealthy Northern Virginia high schools. Local districts with respected computer programs like Hanover and Chesterfield counties. Private and specialty schools like Maggie L. Walker Governor's School that represent the crème de la crème of student achievement. Most come with years of experience and budgets that often run into the tens of thousands of dollars. A number of teams from the Peninsula region have close ties to NASA and its world-class engineers.
Across the pit road from those lines of well-resourced and better-funded future roboticists, however, is a team of a different stripe.
Enter the B.O.T.
At first glance, the robot fielded by Richmond's Thomas Jefferson High School robotics team looks like someone forgot to do their homework. The machine, nicknamed "B.O.T.," looks like a Roomba vacuum with a low-slung cannon turret, perhaps 8 inches high, peaking shyly from its center. The team managed to raise only a couple thousand dollars, so B.O.T. got built on a shoestring budget compared with its rival machines.
But a second look reveals something closer to a sleek ironclad battleship, re-envisioned with a smoked, translucent Lexan shell. This droid packs a serious punch, launching ball after ball with an accuracy to rival NBA star Jeremy Lin.
Its primary designer is equally unlikely in his appearance, standing out in this sea of predominantly white, upper-middle class boys who look like they've grown up on a diet of sugar and video games.
Thomas Jefferson 11th-grader James Kearney II is a force of nature. Stout and with perpetually bemused eyes that twinkle behind a pair of safety goggles, Kearney appears more NFL nose tackle than programmer. His fingers scroll across the keys of a laptop computer that looks miniature in his hands.
Among his Thomas Jefferson teammates, mostly girls afloat in this sea of testosterone-fueled computer-driven geekdom, the contrast is equally stark.
Placidly listening to the panic-edged orders of his team's adult sponsor, John Stevens, it is Kearney who maintains an almost stoic calm, proceeding in what looks like slow motion amidst the hustle around him. A rock of reliability, he keeps his teammates focused on their complex engineering tasks.
"I guess I love robotics so much because it gives me an opportunity to express my engineering creativity," says the 16-year-old Kearney, a junior in the International Baccalaureate program after skipping a grade. A committed autodidact, his indispensability to the TJ team comes from having taught himself Java. "We've got no classes at our school to teach programming, so I just taught myself."
The complex computer-programming language powers everything from the Internet to smartphones. And it's clear Kearney recognizes its power. "I don't know how to describe it — the feeling when I'm on the field driving [the robot] and when we're building is so great. I just love it."
Seemingly oblivious to the excitement around him, Kearney talks of his bigger plans to take his love of computer science to the next level. After high school, he plans to attend MIT or CalTech — or maybe James Madison University — to earn a degree in computing and become a software engineer. "Even before I learned programming, I wanted to work for NASA."
Kearney's mother, Mary, says her son dreams big. Her dedication to her son's self-motivated learning style was made all the more evident when she and James, with three younger siblings in tow, arrived a few hours late on Friday, the first full day of competition. On this day, his mother had delivered him — much to the relief of his teammates and their adult sponsors — fresh from a high school marching-band competition.
"He's so mature that sometimes when you talk to him, you have to think of his actual age," Mary Kearney says, ticking off an accounting of her son's extracurricular activities that also includes providing computer-programming assistance to Hopewell High School's robotics team. "He's an unofficial member of that team, too, but in their eyes, he's official."
Built From Scratch
Like an ER trauma team, the Thomas Jefferson kids transfer B.O.T. from gurney to table, where the team tears in, disassembling and reassembling parts that didn't work quite as planned. This first day of competition — Friday — is all about qualifying for Saturday's main events. The team looks fierce, if a bit worried their robot won't be 100 percent in less than 24 hours.
"We built this from scratch — the kids did it and we assisted to help along," says Dustin Lackey, a TJ physics teacher and one of three adult sponsors to a team that he's proud to have seen grow and mature. "Last year we only had a few kids come to competition. This year we have a pretty dedicated team."
But Lackey says he expects every year for a long time to be about building up this team. This is a young team, and its members, as students of an urban school district with fewer resources and fewer technical and math offerings, have faced uphill battles.
"We haven't done too bad — we didn't come in last," Lackey says of the team's performance last year. In 2009, the first year Thomas Jefferson competed, they finished 51st in a field of 60 teams. By last year, they'd improved to 28th among 64 teams.
Richmond Technical Center fields a team, too, but, TJ's sponsors say, that team has the advantage of drawing from students immersed in technology classes.
"We have such great ideas; it's just making those ideas happen," Lackey says, giving a glance at surrounding teams with their banners covered with logos from corporate sponsors and their expensive Craftsman tool caddies that any dedicated garage gear monkey would envy. "We don't have anything like that."
Instead, for fundraising, the team held basketball shootouts to raise money from fellow students at TJ. Virginia FIRST Robotics also subsidized the team with small scholarship grants and additional resources, as did JMU by mentoring Kearney in a short robotics-programming camp.
Spinning around Kearney and his laptop are a flurry of other students. Aidan Callegari, Ashley Pleasants, Louis Camacho, Stacey Elder and Donald Lynch all have their assigned tasks keeping tabs on tools, fetching servos or gears from bins and trays that the team has brought with them or reviewing the schematics from which the team assembled its CPU-hearted gladiator. Serifat and Moriam Ajao, sisters who could be twins, bounce between tasks giggling but focused.
As the team works, numbers flash and change on a massive electronic scoreboard at one end of the Siegel Center. The TJ team has moved up the rankings.
"We in ninth? Ohhhh!" exclaims an ecstatic Phillip Jones, whose enthusiastic whoop sounds equally appropriate to a schoolyard pickup hoops game. The tall 11th-grader turns to Kearney to exchange a fist pump and shoulder bump.
Jones joined the team last year after being dragged, somewhat reluctantly, to the 2011 competition. "I said, ‘There's something you don't see every day,' " he recalls, deciding to ignore judgment from some of his classmates who didn't think much of his interest in robots. "I don't think enough people know what goes on [with robotics] and I think I was one of those people."
He bristles a bit at the nerd label. "If I wasn't here, I'd be playing basketball. There's more than one side to a person."
Anita Campbell, mom to 12th-grader Kelly Campbell, says her son had begun his involvement in the robotics team while still in middle school but dropped out for a number of years between then and now. The event, she says, didn't get much in the way of respect from Kelly's peers. Robots? Not cool.
But his interest in robots and electronics got the better of him and back he came. "He's a cool nerd," she says, giving her professional mom assessment.
Only two members of the team are not African-American. All but four or five of them are girls. Most come from lower-income families that make up the majority of the Richmond Public Schools student population. The district, according to widely cited statistics, is about 80 percent African-American. The percentage of students on free and reduced lunch — a measure of poverty — is somewhat lower, but many education experts agree that this number is skewed by the fact that many high school students are reluctant to enroll in the program. Graduation rates in the school system remain low.
"As you can see by the demographics, we're a bit of a different team," says head coach Stevens. Young, intense and with a swimmer's lithe frame, Stevens teaches International Baccalaureate math at the school and founded the robotics team.
His intensity is partly borne of frustration. Displaying powerful devotion to his students, Stevens launches unchecked into an impassioned and exasperated rant, taking Richmond Public Schools to task for not providing more emphasis — and resources — to math and computer-science classes.
He points to the team from nearby Mills Godwin High School in Henrico County. "They have 14 programmers on that team. Fourteen!" he says, indignant that not only is James the only programmer on his team, but that Richmond Public Schools won't likely produce anyone to replace him because the district offers not a single computer-programming class.
Alfonzo Mathis, an RPS spokesman, confirms Stevens' assertion. "We do not provide those course offerings for our students," he says.
Stevens says his students also lack the home life that many of their peers in the suburbs enjoy: "Having a dad who takes you in the garage and shows you how to use tools," he says. "You're just disadvantaged culturally — a lot of those things come when you don't have a steady family, when one parent is overstressed and is running from crisis to crisis."
He says his biggest beef is an institutional willingness to assume poor, urban students are unmotivated or unable to take advantage of technical offerings and classes: "We don't have the facilities, and yet we're trying to push the kids to go to college."
The wide chasm of disparity that exists between Richmond's urban school district and the surrounding county schools is hard not to recognize, says Lorraine Parker, an associate professor of computer science VCU for more than three decades. She's worked for years with Richmond Public Schools and serves on the advisory board of the Richmond Technical Center's STEM Center.
"There's nowhere in Richmond Public Schools that they offer any computer-programming classes, whatsoever," Parker says. "None." In fact, Parker knows because she's made efforts to rectify this. Two programs — one at the middle-school level and another at the high-school level — died on the vine. One, a summer training program, would have prepared teachers by coaching them in the basics of programming and by providing help in developing teaching materials for a course that would have been offered as a dual-enrollment class worth college credit. RPS administrators provided many roadblocks to offering the class, but no solutions. "I just think there was nobody on the RPS side who said, ‘We have to make this happen.' "
The closest RPS comes to computing courses is at Richmond Technical Center, where students take CAD — computer-aided design. CAD is not programming, Parker stresses, anymore than learning Microsoft Word or Excel are programming.
She says that failing to offer even something so basic as an introductory programming class is a major disservice to Richmond Public Schools graduates. It's a disparity that exacerbates what state and local schools leaders already acknowledge is a gap between knowledge on state Standards of Learning tests and what it means to be prepared for college.
More significantly, it perpetuates the sort of national statistics that show African-Americans entering fields of computing — one of the fastest growing areas of employment — at an abysmal rate. Of all computer-science degrees awarded at U.S. universities in 2010, 3.4 percent went to African-Americans, according to statistics published in the October 2011 issue of Journal of Computing Sciences.
Meanwhile, the job market is all but literally crying out for qualified graduates with degrees — even certificates or two-year degrees — in the computer sciences.
While median salaries have fallen across the country in nearly all fields, computer-related jobs continue to hire and to pay well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the 2010 median salary for someone with a bachelor's of science in computer science specialties was between $70,000 to $100,000. Job growth, depending on the area of specialization, is projected between now and 2020 to be anywhere from 22 percent to 30 percent.
"There is a nationwide shortage of people in computer science," Parker says. "We have this huge untapped resource of minorities and females. Not only are we doing the minorities and the females a disservice by not showing them opportunities for jobs, but we are doing our country a disservice by not tapping the resource that we have [in order] to fill the need."
Parker sees another issue with any school district, urban or otherwise, that fails to offer computer science to its students. "The bigger problem, in my opinion … is these kids are never introduced to what's called algorithmic thinking," she says, touching at the heart of Stevens' complaints — that the focus in Richmond schools is not on critical thinking but simply on test taking. "This type of algorithmic thinking is something everybody needs to know how to do. Computer science is an excellent way of teaching how to do it."
Algorithmic thinking is James Kearney's specialty, says team sponsor Dustin Lackey, who recalls driving James home after a robotics club meeting early in the school year. During the car ride, puzzling over how best to construct a robot that would be able to move around a basketball court, pick up balls and then aim them from various points on the basketball court at a basket seemed like a tough challenge to Lackey.
Working off the brainstorming of his teammates, James had it figured out by the time they reached his house. The robot would run over the balls, sucking them inside using a set of wheels that would act as a conveyor system. Balls would then be loaded directly up into a low turret that would shoot at a fixed 53-degree angle. Shooting higher or lower would be determined by the velocity that the ball was propelled by spinning wheels.
On the back loading dock of the Siegel Center on Saturday afternoon, students are showing a mix of emotions. Inside, the competition continues, but the teams shuffling equipment from the competition floor to waiting vans and buses are done.
A team from Hanover County, finishing 42nd in the field of 59, looks downcast.
"We learned a lot," the coach says as his kids roughly manhandle their mechanized creation into the rear of a minivan.
The kids from Thomas Jefferson High are on their way home, too. Ultimate victory today was not to be. That honor goes to Team Sparky from Henrico County's J.R. Tucker High School, which, along with a number of other teams, qualified for the FIRST WORLD Championship in St. Louis, scheduled for late April.
But this day was a victory perhaps just as sweet. That turret? Thomas Jefferson's crack team got it working pretty darned well — still a bit buggy, but serviceable — and finished the day in 16th place, ahead even of the mighty minds of Maggie L. Walker Governor's School.
Not bad for the little team that could.
"I'm really, really happy with how we did," Kearney says. "We're a new team. The longer we do it, the closer we get to being where we need to be."