Playing Mind Games

06/07/2015

Sophomore Blake Comenduley slumps in his chair, mumbling while he fidgets with a video game controller. He’s preoccupied; momentarily self-absorbed. In any other situation, nothing about this scene would be noteworthy; just your average American teen doing what average American teens do. But here, on the fifth floor of Proviso Math & Science Academy in a Western suburb of Chicago, Comenduley is anything but average. He’s the build captain of the school’s 23-student robotics team and the controller he’s holding has been programmed to manipulate the 120-pound machine constructed for this year’s biggest national teenage robotics competition.

More than building robots
Class finals are next week, with summer vacation not far behind and a handful of students and volunteers are packing up the Proviso lab space they’ve been using most of the year. The robotics competition that kicked off in January is over. The Proviso Pythons, who fell just short of their goal to finish in the state’s top 20, has little left to do but jam gears back into boxes and wires into their rightful totes. Most of these students from low to middle class neighborhoods are still too young to apply to colleges, but are nevertheless settled on where they will be attending. MIT, U of I, Worcester College of Technology, Purdue are rattled off in quick succession by the students. This is clearly not the first time they’ve thought about it. The other two district high schools only graduate about 75 percent of its seniors, Proviso MSA graduates an astounding 99 percent and lends much credibility to volunteer coordinator Jocelyn Gougisha’s emphasis that, “We’re a robotics team, but we do a lot more than build robots.”

FIRST: Creativity and Inspiration
Every year for the last two decades, upwards of 250,000 students retreat to their separate parts of the nation to spend six weeks designing, programming, building and preparing robots to do battle against other student groups, determining which gang of young engineers built the best ‘bot. The New Hampshire-based host program, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), has become known as the “Olympics of the Mind” among its contestants. The competition for which they annually gather around the country is called the FIRST Robotics Competition (or the rare acronym-within-an-acronym FRC). The FRC is the last of four stages developed by the charitable organization. Students as young as eight may enroll in more rudimentary robotic design courses that demonstrate mechanics through the use of Legos. As many of the team members are quick to point out, kids who have taken the previous courses are more likely to earn acceptance into these high school club. In turn, students competing in the FRC are more likely to gain acceptance into the college of their choice.

The FRC game rules change from year to year and are revealed to each team simultaneously. This year’s games required teams to design a mobile robot able to pick up objects at varying heights. After six weeks of design and construction and several more weeks of waiting to contend, regional teams gathered in Thunderdome–like atmospheres all over the country to compete in time trials against other robots. Similar to Olympic trials, depending upon the team’s success at the regionals, they go on to compete nationally.

Of the nearly 6,000 students populating the three high schools in Proviso’s district, the Academy of Math & Sciences has only 800 of them, all of whom had to qualify for the school’s selective admissions program. There are only 30 spots available on the robotics team for those 800 students. In this district, that means only 1-in-200 students will compete in the FIRST program. The optimistic outlook is that such scarce availability will drive the competitive desire among students to make the team. A more pessimistic view is that there aren’t enough teens interested in joining to propel the demand past the same 30 participants. American engineering has taken a power dive in the span of a generation. Math and science scores among U.S. teens have dipped from top 5 to outside the top 15. In a recent CNN interview, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “We’ve basically had a 19th Century model of education that is not preparing enough young people to be successful in the 21st Century global economy. At a time of high unemployment rates, we actually have 2 million unfilled, high-wage, high-skilled jobs because the U.S. hasn’t produced.”

One wouldn’t know any of this watching the Proviso Pythons explain the details of the robot they named Monty 5. They treat Monty like the family dog; proud of the tricks it can do in front of guests, embarrassed when it malfunctions and makes a mess on the floor. The school’s previous four years yielded Montys 1 through 4, all of which are now splayed lifelessly in the corner of the lab like organ donors, gutted and non-functional from teams of yesteryear having to use its parts for newer robots. This is a by-product of a high-cost program in a low-budget district and such cost-cutting is happening throughout the States, even forcing administrators that would like FIRST in their schools to go without the programs. Unable to afford every last part it needs to create Monty 5, the team has literally had to dismantle its past in order to sustain its future.

Gougisha, who began volunteering with the program when her daughter joined in 2007, understands the school’s limitations and focuses heavily on decreasing them while maintaining perspective. “FIRST has been around for 20 years,” she says. “Other schools have been building robots for 20 years. We’ve been around for five. Obviously there are schools with significantly more experience than Proviso.” It also doesn’t help that 10 seniors graduated last year and left a gaping hole in team leadership. Indeed, none of the four lead captains are seniors. With the Pythons’ built-in leadership off to college, the necessity for outside mentorship is even more dire than usual. This year, in addition to Proviso’s volunteers and teacher sponsors (a calculus teacher and a physics professor), the team has benefited from mentors with backgrounds in electrical engineering, automation, and programming. Those volunteers that have given their time usually do so during the six-week construction process to oversee and educate the students on the finer points of robotic construction in which they need help. More mentors are needed.

Interlake Mecalux takes part in it
In fact, this is the thrust that compelled Interlake Mecalux to get involved. “We have a core group of parents,” Gougisha says, adding with a hint of foreboding, “but there are never enough. The main groups of mentors now don’t even have kids that go to the school.” It’s both a testimony to the quality of the program that those who get involved stay involved, as much as it is an indictment of the dangers not finding more volunteers may present. Funding is scarce at Proviso and the contest requires considerable amounts of money to compete. The team has been involved in some marketing aimed at landing sponsorships, a process Gougisha called successful, but not without room for improvement. To date, the Pythons have wrangled partnerships including a nearby community college, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, BorgWarner, JCPenny and NASA, all sponsorships of which were procured through presentations given by the students to the board members of each of these companies. In NASA’s case, it developed an initiative to sponsor teams in just their first or second year of competition. In some hardship cases, such as Proviso’s, NASA extended the sponsorship into a third year.

Ultimately, the program isn’t about sponsors or mentors, teachers or school districts; it comes back to the teenagers working together in a lab five months out of the year, and their growth from putting that kind of time into an extracurricular activity. When team captain Eddie Hudson IV first entered the program he knew nothing about robotics. “I didn’t even know how to take apart a bike chain,” Hudson says today, acknowledging the encouragement he’s received from mentors and from the FIRST programs. “I was always interested in building things. Like, I would always take apart mechanical pencils and see what I could do with them. I’ve always liked how a robot can do so much and think on its own. When I was in sixth grade, [the Proviso Academy] opened and I found it had a robotics team, getting into this school became my goal.” Hudson could have been speaking for any of the students on the team, and as team captain, he often does.

The students stand over the detached picking arm of Monty 5, relaying their already long and involved history with the elements of robotics. “I’ve always been fascinated by electricity - I’ve been zapped a few times,” Comenduley says. He’s the youngest of the captains, but significantly taller, more vocal and without the normal teenage self-consciousness flickering in the other members of the team. “I’ve been hit with the full voltage of my house,” he continues. This causes a pregnant pause from the rest of the group. It appears they are all embarrassed by their lead builder’s dangerous fascination until Brent Williams, the team’s thin, deep-voiced design captain chimes in. “Yeah, same,” he says. “I’ve stuck a penny in a light socket at my house.” Everyone cracks up, nodding in agreement. It is entirely possible that this room is filled with kids who have all been zapped by the electric currents flowing through their homes.

For a month between March and April, in warehouses all across the country, odd little robots sat packed in crates like stowaways. In those crates sat a thousand examples of the nation’s fragile promise; sweat, creativity and intelligence wired and plugged into a single symbol. It’s early yet for this group, but already their innovative minds appear hell bent on yanking the nation back into one that creates. But before this generation can see through on that desire, someone must first show them where to start. Because whether it’s electrified pennies or robot competitors, if it keeps these bright kids glowing, it must be worth it.