To Be A Geek, A Robot God

An epic saga of genius, striving, triumph and survival in which our heroes, mere high school students, create truly marvelous mechanical beings, becoming fairly amazing human beings in the process

She marches up to the sea of boys from Rio Rancho High in New Mexico and starts talking.

"Where are your sponsors?" she asks. The boys say nothing.

"Is this your first year?" she continues, undaunted. One of the boys shuffles a bit in that shy, high school boy sort of way and says no, Rio Rancho is not a rookie team. Gina nods and tells the Rio Rancho boys if they need anything or have any questions they are more than welcome to come to the Leopards' pit.

Jose Hernandez is a Leopard, a geek and a father.
Deron Neblett
Jose Hernandez is a Leopard, a geek and a father.

As Gina weaves her way throughout the front room of the arena, she talks about being one of the few girls on the team. While most of the girl Leopards have chosen to handle more administrative tasks, like applying for special FIRST awards or writing the group newsletter, Gina likes to work with Big Cat's electrical components.

"At first, it was intimidating," she says, clutching her little sister's hand. "But as long as you can get up there and do the exact same thing, it's all right."

Back at the pit, Jose and several adult advisers from HSEP, ExxonMobil and Kellogg Brown & Root are preparing for the judges' inspection of Big Cat. They've already passed the height and weight tests; now FIRST judges dressed in starched blue polo shirts and khakis must examine all of Big Cat's internal organs to make sure they follow safety guidelines.

Right off the bat, the Leopards have a problem. The judges want to be able to see underneath part of Big Cat's chassis to examine some electrical components and determine if they are secure. Unless the Leopards can talk their way out of it, they'll have to deconstruct part of Big Cat. Jose watches quietly as the judges move off to one side to confer.

"We hid our stuff too well," explains Anthony Zalesky, a 17-year-old junior and second-year team member. Anthony is the team assistant, which means he's in charge of the tools. He also acts as a liaison between the adult volunteers and the Leopards. Anthony is all teenager, with a six-foot frame that he's still learning to walk with. He talks a lot, and when he does he often sounds like he's about to run out of breath. His hair is blond, and he wears lemon-yellow safety goggles on top of his regular glasses and a black baseball cap with "Team 57" printed on it.

Anthony's two older brothers attended HSEP, and each was valedictorian. Anthony thinks if he had been "more serious" his freshman year, he might have had a chance to follow in their footsteps.

"But I think I'll still be in the top 25," he says. He seems okay with that. Besides, neither of Anthony's brothers ever got to work with robots.

The judges return to the pit area and decide not to make the Leopards take apart Big Cat. The team will pass inspection.

The Leopards prepare for the dry runs on the large carpeted rectangular field inside the arena. The two "drivers" (the Leopards who operate the robot with joysticks) will negotiate Big Cat under a dividing rail and over a pivoting bridge midfield. In addition, two tall metal "goals," basically six-foot-tall buckets on wheels, will be placed at either end of the field. The teams can gain points any number of ways, including using a "human player" to throw basketballs into the goal. One of the best and most nerve-racking ways to make the score total jump is by balancing the robot on the pivoting bridge. Each round lasts two minutes, but a team can multiply its score by ending a round early if its members think they won't be able to score any more points.

Since today is just a practice day, the mood is mellow. To pump up the crowd, FIRST has arranged to have music blaring throughout the arena. The song choices range from the Backstreet Boys to, perhaps more appropriate, Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me with Science." Watching the action from the sidelines is English teacher and team coach Bob Brienzo. Mr. Brienzo has instructed the HSEP kids for the past 12 years. His background is in physics, but he enjoys teaching literature. He cracks weird jokes, rides a motorcycle and is the sort of teacher who yells things at his students like, "Camus went so beyond Joseph Conrad he makes Conrad look like a kindergartner!"

Mr. Brienzo thinks many kids at HSEP wouldn't be accepted as easily if they attended a different school or weren't in the magnet program. Being a part of HSEP is invaluable to him and his kids. It's a place where being a geek is not only somewhat necessary, it's appreciated.

Mr. Brienzo watches the robots rolling around on the field and declares HSEP's unofficial school motto: "A school of misfits taught by misfits."

HSEP is in a unique and some might say difficult position. As one of HISD's "school within a school" magnets, its students and faculty technically belong to Booker T. Washington High. The HSEP kids attend classes in the same building at 119 East 39th with those not in the magnet program. Booker T.'s TAAS scores and ethnic breakdown statistics rely on HSEP kids, who bring diversity and high test numbers to the table.

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