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

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.

Jose Hernandez is a Leopard, a geek and a father.
Deron Neblett
Jose Hernandez is a Leopard, a geek and a father.
Edmund Kohlwey, Gina Cagle and Anthony Zalesky have been preparing for the competition for six weeks.
Deron Neblett
Edmund Kohlwey, Gina Cagle and Anthony Zalesky have been preparing for the competition for six weeks.
Bob Brienzo teaches English at HSEP, but robots are a passion too.
Deron Neblett
Bob Brienzo teaches English at HSEP, but robots are a passion too.
Bob Brienzo teaches English at HSEP, but robots are a passion too.
Deron Neblett
Bob Brienzo teaches English at HSEP, but robots are a passion too.
Virgil Gamble uses his Palm Pilot to assist Anthony with some quick calculations.
Deron Neblett
Virgil Gamble uses his Palm Pilot to assist Anthony with some quick calculations.
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.

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."

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.

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.

But the Leopards of HSEP clearly seem to identify with the magnet program more than anything else. Although Booker T.'s mascot is the Eagle, the robotics kids have chosen to be Leopards. During the practice runs on the first day of the Lone Star Regional, the students chant "H-S-E-P" instead of "B-T-W." HSEP, which was opened in 1974, has its own special faculty and its own unique schedule, and with the exception of foreign language classes and electives, HSEP kids are in classes by themselves. HSEP students are selected primarily on the basis of their performance on the Differential Aptitude Test, and some travel as much as 45 minutes to get to school. Booker T. Washington kids attend because they live close by. While the Booker T. kids leave school around 3 p.m., the HSEP kids continue to take classes until 4 p.m. And the fact that most magnet courses take place on the second floor of the school leads to the general school lingo of "upstairs" and "downstairs" when referring to the respective schools.

Booker T.'s enrollment stands at just under 1,400, with HSEP kids making up 28 percent of the student body with its 400 students. The 108-year-old Booker T. Washington has a long history in the African-American community, and according to HISD statistics is 83 percent African-American, 13 percent Hispanic, 4 percent white and 1 percent Asian. But HSEP's student body (60 percent African-American, 20 to 25 percent Hispanic and 15 to 20 percent white) certainly helps make up Booker T.'s diverse student body statistics.

So how does the school-within-a-school model play out?

"There are challenges when keeping parity amongst the schools," says HSEP coordinator John Spikerman. "I don't want to say jealousy, because jealousy is not the right word." As soon as he says this, he is quick to point out the numerous ways that HSEP kids take part in the life of Booker T. There are HSEP kids who are football players, cheerleaders, members of ROTC. They all take gym together, he says.

"The quarterback at Baylor was an HSEP kid; the running back for Arizona was an HSEP kid," says Spikerman.

Spikerman and others in HISD are eager to portray HSEP and Booker T. as one integrated body, but some of the HSEP kids at the Lone Star Regional think that's not so. Half of the HSEP kids don't go to school dances or sporting events, they say. They like to hang out together.

"Some of [the Booker T. students] don't really like us, because they think we act so smart," says Christopher Prince, a 17-year-old junior. Christopher's teammate Virgil Gamble, a 16-year-old sophomore, remembers the time he and other HSEP kids were working on building small "mousetrap cars" that could scoot down the hallway.

"They were all, 'Oh, they're so smart,' " remembers Virgil. "It wasn't really that hard. It's a mousetrap on wheels."

Booker T. Washington's principal since 1965, Franklyn Wesley, did not want to be interviewed for this story. Some of the HSEP robotics students wonder if he even understands how much time they put into their robot program.

"To him, football is everything," says 15-year-old sophomore Pegah Javidpour, echoing the sentiments of several Leopards. "He excludes us on a lot of things when it comes to sports." But Pegah knows the HSEP kids are valuable in one important way: "If we weren't there, TAAS scores would be down," she explains matter-of-factly.

When the Leopards took first place in the Southwest Regional championship, however, Wesley shocked the Leopards and their advisers by giving HSEP chemistry teacher and robotics coach John Gray a hug. The Leopards talk about this incident with a lot of surprise.

"He's normally very stoic," Mr. Gray says diplomatically. "Before I knew it, he gave me a hug."

At the same time that some of the HSEP kids try to explain the strange relationship between HSEP and Booker T. Washington, some -- like Pegah -- admit there are valuable lessons to be learned.

"I grew up in white schools, white neighborhoods," she says. "When I first came to Booker T. I hated it." During her initial months at the school, she found out from a cheerleader that there had been a shooting at a weekend party. Her parents begged her to attend Westside High, the school she was zoned for. But something made Pegah want to stay. And it wasn't just the HSEP curriculum.

"We all live in America," she says. "When I get to college, I don't want to be dense. Booker T. is teaching me." Recently she decided to attend a basketball game, just to see what it was like.

"If you open your mind, you may experience more," she reasons.

Edward Nelson, whose son Phillip is a sophomore and one of the Leopards' drivers, agrees there is a lot to be learned by sending Phillip to HSEP, even if he has to make a 25-mile round-trip to get there. The way he sees it, more random violence seems to be happening these days at all-white suburban schools rather than urban ones like Booker T. Washington. But he thinks there might be some wisdom in making HSEP more like the freestanding High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. By placing HSEP in a more central location and having bigger facilities, the number of students benefiting from the program would increase.

"There are more engineers than artists, but HSPVA has no trouble filling up," he says. "I'm not knocking HISD, but if I were on the board, I'd set up magnet schools on their own. They've imploded as schools within schools."


But HISD politics are the last thing on the Leopards' minds Friday at the arena. Today is the first official day of the competition, and the team is decked out in matching black-and-white T-shirts and baseball caps. Gina writes "Go Team 57!" on the team's dry-erase board that keeps track of points and matches. She also doodles a picture of a pig because she claims she can't draw a leopard. The drivers, Phillip Nelson and Myles Goodman, wear leopard suits complete with tails. Their human player, responsible for shooting basketballs into the goals, is junior Damian Canetti-Rios.

"They picked me because I'm tall -- that's the only reason," he mutters. "I'm clumsy."

The HSEP kids act free of cooler-than-thou high school posturing. Some of them wear capes covered in team buttons. Others average out team scores on Palm Pilots. They take breaks to hula-hoop in the middle of the lobby. Gina paints leopard stripes on her boyfriend Myles's face. As Anthony organizes the team's tools, he peers at Myles's leopard-wear.

"Those suits are chick magnets," he decides.

It's almost time for the Leopards' first official match. The kids who operate the robot, and some adult advisers, head down to the playing area to wait their turn, while the rest of the HSEP students take their places in the stands. Team mothers have marked off the seats with signs. As one of the moms puts it, "It's football -- on a geek's level."

Booker T.'s main football rivals are in attendance, but when it comes to robotics, Yates High School is nothing but a friend to the kids of HSEP.

"Yates is the best robot out there," says Virgil, observing the match preceding HSEP's. Some of the Leopards cheer on Yates from their seats.

Finally HSEP takes its place on the floor. As the buzzer signals the start of the match, Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby" begins to play, and rotating colored lights shine down on the field to create a sort of robot disco. The kids in the stands jump up and whoop wildly, shaking plastic soda bottles filled with pennies. But almost as soon as the match begins, there's a problem. With its long mechanical arm, Big Cat has managed to grasp one of the goals, only to have it tip over and fall directly on top of the chassis. Big Cat stops in its tracks.

"The Leopards are motionless on the field!" cries the announcer into the mike. "A tough break for the Leopards!"

For the agonizing remainder of the match, the Leopards in the stands continue to cheer, but they can't imagine what could be wrong. As soon as the match is over, almost all 30 of them race down to the pit to discover that -- against all logic -- when the goal fell on top of Big Cat it managed to hit the kill switch and turn the robot off. Competition rules made it illegal for the Leopards to go onto the field during the match, even to turn the robot back on.

"That wasn't exactly what we wanted," says Myles, as Gina tries to cheer him up.

Jose and others decide an aluminum brace attached to the top of Big Cat is a good idea, even though the odds are slim that a goal will turn off the robot again. By the time the robot is ready for its second of seven Friday matches, the Leopards are back in the stands. Inexplicably, the goal falls on top of Big Cat again.

Back at the pit after the second match, Anthony makes calculations on the dry-erase board with a green marker.

"We are averaging 97 and a half points per game right now," he says in a very quick clip. "That is about ten to 12 points below our expectations."

Mr. Brienzo observes the scene. "When you work with machines, you find out Murphy was an optimist," he says.

Up in the stands, Jose is brooding.

"I feel like I carry a lot of weight," he says.

As a third-year member, Jose shoulders almost as much responsibility at school as at home with Melissa and Vivianna. During robot season it can be stressful, because he rarely gets back to his family until late at night. It bugs him, because he loves spending time with his daughter, taking her for walks, pushing her in the stroller.

"She's like a robot you can't control," he says with a laugh.

Jose likes to take Vivianna driving, because when she looks out the window she's amazed by everything she sees. Vivianna amazes Jose. One minute she's crying, the next minute she's walking, he says.

She was a surprise, Jose acknowledges. But he thinks she was a good one. When he told his mother he was going to be a father, she "lost her head." But his dad was more excited about a new grandchild. Jose says his dad had Jose when he was young himself, so he understands. Jose's relatives all live within a five-minute drive of his house, which he says gives him a good feeling. He knows he wants to be an engineer, and his advisers sure think he would be a good one. But he's still not certain what will happen next year.

"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.

"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.

Jose is standing quietly in the corner of the pit next to Big Cat, holding on to Vivianna's stroller. He doesn't say anything and doesn't want to.

"Let's hear it for the coaches!" somebody cries, and the Leopards clap.

"Let's hear it for the drivers!" yells Gina, and there is more clapping.

One of the team mothers shouts, "Let's hear it for one of our seniors, Jose!" And everybody claps the hardest.

There is nothing more to be said standing there in that pit. They will have to pack up Big Cat in his wooden, leopard-spotted crate. Anthony has to put away the tools. But nobody wants to think about that now. The elimination rounds are still going on inside, and the championship rounds will follow after that. Maybe they can't be on the playing field, but at least they know whichever team takes first will be full of geeks, just like them. They figure it's nice to see geeks triumph once in a while. So the Leopards pat each other on the back and quietly trek back inside to watch the victors.

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