By Aaron Reiss
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It's a robot that has brought 18-year-old Jose Hernandez here today, to Reliant Arena. The robot's name is Big Cat, and soft-spoken, round-faced Jose is huddled over all 122 pounds of it, examining the chassis. When placed on the floor, Big Cat is as square and wide as a small night table and as high as somebody's ankles. It's fast, and can manipulate obstacles with ease. It is, thinks Jose, a terrific robot.
Jose Hernandez is a geek, but he likes that. Being a geek is what this day is all about. It's practically the whole point. This is, after all, a robotics competition. And as any run-of-the-mill nerd will tell you, any dweeb can pass a physics exam. But it takes someone as brilliant as a geek to build a robot.
Jose and Big Cat are not alone. In addition to being a geek, Jose is also a Leopard. The Leopards come from Booker T. Washington High's magnet school: the High School for the Engineering Professions. The Leopards from HSEP are at the arena for one reason: They are going to win this robotics competition.
The arena's lobby is set out like a science fair, with table after table placed in neat rows and columns. Forty-one registered high school teams of about ten to 30 kids each are staked out at their assigned spots, referred to as pits by the students. The schools in attendance represent nine different states. The average age of the students is around 16. The boy-to-girl ratio is something like 30:1. But there is only one reigning champion: the Leopards from HSEP.
In addition to being a geek and a Leopard, Jose Hernandez is also a father. The third-year team member would like to use his knowledge to make a good life for himself, his girlfriend, Melissa, and their nine-month-old daughter, Vivianna. Jose, Melissa and Vivianna live in a small garage apartment behind the house where Jose's family lives. Melissa works at a Randalls, and family members watch the baby while Jose is at school and Melissa is at work. Jose talks about going to Drexel University or maybe Texas A&M, but he has Melissa and Vivianna to consider, so he's not sure yet what will happen next year.
All he knows for certain at this moment is that he wants Big Cat to make him proud.
The Leopards won first place in the Southeast Regional robotics competition the week before, at Kennedy Space Center in Cocoa Beach, Florida. That competition, like the one at the arena, was sponsored by a New Hampshire nonprofit called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). At the competition at the arena, FIRST recognizes the Leopards' previous victory by anointing them with a blue vinyl sign about two feet by four feet that reads, "Winner Southeast Regional 2001." The Leopards place the sign in their pit, high atop a wooden crate so everyone can see it. But Jose and the Leopards know that sign means nothing now. What matters is the competition at hand. The FIRST Lone Star Regional. All together there are 32 Leopards, and they have been preparing for this competition for the past six weeks. Now they have three days and one robot to prove themselves.
March 15 is the first official day of the event, but there is no actual competing. Instead, the Leopards and the other registered teams spend the day going through a judges' inspection, participating in practice runs and just getting excited about the event in general. Each FIRST team has corporate sponsors that provided the money and mentoring necessary to make a robot ready for competition. The Leopards' two major sponsors are Kellogg Brown & Root and ExxonMobil. The Leopards' budget is about $70,000, which includes money to build the robot and to travel to other FIRST competitions. In addition to the money, adults from both corporations provide time and hands-on support in constructing the Leopards' machine.
Those adults volunteers call Jose "the main guy in the pit" and say he "kicks butt." Team member Terese Pollard says Jose is "a robot god," which seems to be the consensus among the Leopards. The tall, stocky boy dressed in an Adidas baseball cap and dark T-shirt was one of the main designers of Big Cat's chassis, and he wants to be a mechanical engineer. As a child he made up games for his two younger sisters with cut-up pieces of yardsticks.
"I like to feel smart," he says. "Not that many people can say, 'I built that,' or 'I designed that.' It feels special."
As Jose works on Big Cat, Gina Cagle works the room. She's a 15-year-old sophomore and one of the few girls on the team. She spends much of Thursday holding the hand of her 11-year-old sister, Andrea, and walking from team to team to say hello. As a Houston-based group, the Leopards want to extend some hospitality and perhaps increase their chances of winning the much-esteemed Team Spirit Award or Sportsmanship Award.
Gina has olive skin and brown curly hair down to her shoulders and stands barely five feet tall ("But I drink my milk and eat my vegetables!"). She wears Buddy Holly geek-chic glasses that curve up into cat's eyes, a silver thumb ring and a pink Powerpuff Girls wristwatch. Her sentences are divided up by giggle fits and exclamations like "spiffy."