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

"I've lived in Houston my whole life," he says. "I can't imagine living anywhere else."

Jose spends much of his time at the competition hanging out with robotics alumni Jose Sanchez, who is back in town on spring break. Jose, 19, is a freshman at Drexel University and credits the robotics program for hands-on experience.

One thing Jose S. notices is that the team, although still racially diverse, is attracting more white students than ever before. Indeed, about 15 of the 32 students are white, even though whites make up one of the smallest racial groups at HSEP. Jose isn't sure why this is, but he figures it doesn't matter much in the world of robotics.

Big Cat attempts to balance two goals on the pivoting bridge.
Deron Neblett
Big Cat attempts to balance two goals on the pivoting bridge.
The Leopards cheer on Big Cat to the No. 1 seed.
Deron Neblett
The Leopards cheer on Big Cat to the No. 1 seed.

"I was co-captain last year, and the other co-captain was white," he says. "When we argued it wasn't because he was white, it was because we had different ideas for concepts."

Indeed, most of the Leopards seem oblivious to their own diversity. During lunch on the lawn outside the arena, they mix easily with one another. The only argument that develops is a scientific one. When someone reads on a Chips Ahoy bag that there are 1,000 chips in every bag, the Leopards can't seem to decide if crushing the cookies or boiling them down would be the easiest way to separate the chips from the cookies.

"If you crush them, you could crush a chip, which could be confusing," says one boy.

After lunch it's back to the playing field, and by the end of the day the Leopards' luck is changing. Goals stop falling on top of Big Cat. The drivers manage to balance the robot on the pivoting bridge, which causes the kids in the stands to shriek. In one round alone they rack up a shocking 352 points. When the team rankings are released after the qualifying matches are done, the Leopards have made it to the No. 1 seed.

"We're No. 1!" announces Mr. Gray, the chemistry teacher, racing to the team with the news. The mass of kids cheers triumphantly. Jose, however, remains calm. He stands by Big Cat almost protectively. Someone asks him if he's excited.

"A little bit," he says. He knows the semifinal rounds are still ahead.

On Saturday, the day of the final rounds, Anthony has scored a leopard hood to wear. He sits in the stands, watching as Leopards driver Phillip stands in the middle of the playing field with representatives from the top four teams. According to competition rules, the Leopards are automatically paired with the fifth-ranked team. They must now select three other schools to form a complete "alliance." Then the top four alliances will compete for first place. Phillip calls up football rival Yates High to join the team. Up in the stands, Mr. Brienzo recalls that Yates selected HSEP last year. It's a good partnership.

Because it's Saturday, Melissa is able to join Jose at the competition. She brings Vivianna with her. The nine-month-old has dark hair and eyes, and is wearing a Mickey Mouse bib lined in lime-green that reads, "It's Meal Time!" Jose likes to carry his daughter, and both he and Melissa attempt to teach her to clap for the Leopards.

Earlier that day, as the Leopards tried to decide on alliance partners, Jose wandered between the team and Melissa and Vivianna, who stood off to the side. Melissa says she's proud of Jose for his robot work, even though it means she doesn't get to see him very often. She says he's a good father.

Now the young couple sits in the stands, watching as the Leopards and their alliance partners prepare for the first elimination round.

"Make it happen!" roars the announcer. The HSEP kids cheer, but everything seems to go wrong right away. The alliance robots can't strike the harmony necessary to score the big points. Big Cat attempts to balance the bridge, but it can't. They earn a dismal 42 points.

"There was sadness in Mudville," says Phillip's father, shaking his head.

The competing alliance earns 244 points, then 75 the next time. That means the Leopards and their partners need to score 320 points in the final round to advance to the championship. The Leopards' personal best is 368, so they know it can be done. The buzzer signals the start. The Leopards shake their bottles full of coins and scream. The advisers holler advice to the drivers on the floor. Big Cat zooms into action.

They score only 33 points.

It's quiet in the stands. The Leopards gather themselves and retreat back to the pit, where they greet their drivers with hugs. Gina tucks a piece of Phillip's shoulder-length dark hair behind his ear and rubs his head in sympathy.

"They're going to be the hardest on themselves," she says.

The advisers and coaches try to pump the kids up. This isn't it for the Leopards. They have enough sponsorship money to travel to Epcot Center in April and participate in the FIRST nationals there. But the Leopards know there isn't enough money to send all of them. Only a handful of kids, Jose and Gina included, will be able to attend. Some, like Anthony, will have to stay home.

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