The Little Team That Could

An inner-city robotics team competes against the world’s best—and wins a prize more precious than its trophy.
August 22, 2015

It was the big day, the opening of the championship round of the international FIRST Robotics Competition, and Carolina Menjivar was so nervous that she’d had trouble eating for two days. “It was my first time flying in an airplane or even going out of state, so naturally I was sweating bullets even before I arrived in Missouri,” the high school senior recalls. “I was instantly overwhelmed by the amount of people in attendance.”

Carolina was among more than 18,000 students with 900 robots from 40 countries who had descended on the indoor stadium that’s home to the St. Louis Rams. At times the crowd swelled to 40,000 at the four-day event in April, which included performances by Boys Like Girls and will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas.

“It hit me that my team from South L.A. made it to the championships,” Carolina says.

Darryl Newhouse, lead mentor for robotics Team 597 from Foshay Learning Center, tried to soothe her nerves. “Carolina, I know this is important, but do your best and forget the rest.”

Newhouse had plenty of practice calming jittery teens. He brought teams to the championship for 10 of the last 11 years, after introducing robotics to Foshay students in 2001. It’s costly. Until recent years when he has been reimbursed, the math teacher was charging $5,000-$7,000 on his credit cards each year to help pay for travel and meals for him and the students, entry fees, robot parts, shipping and other expenses—in addition to what was covered by sponsorships and fundraising.

But this is a very big deal for everyone. Most Foshay students live at or below the poverty level; Newhouse recalls taking one student “home”—to a car. Some of Newhouse’s charges have never left Los Angeles. Some of their immigrant parents wondered, Do you need a passport to go to St. Louis? Could kids be deported if their parents are undocumented?

Carolina wasn’t directly involved with the robot. Her role, and that of team captains Ana Hernandez and Jason Mares, was to make the case that Team 597, The Wolverines, should enter the FIRST Hall of Fame and win what is considered the competition’s biggest honor, the Chairman’s Award. The award goes to the team that is the best role model in transforming its community by spreading interest in science and technology.

It was a huge challenge for the humble yet hopeful scrappers from South Los Angeles. Could they defeat hundreds of other teams?

Inspiring kids to dream of science and technology careers—just as they dream of stardom in athletics or entertainment—was Segway inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen’s purpose in 1989 when he founded FIRST, an international nonprofit organization. That helps explain the annual competition’s hoopla. Justin Bieber said in a video for FIRST: “I think what you guys do is just as cool as what we do in music.” Rapper will.i.am has performed at the annual event for years, adapting his song “Hall of Fame” for the purpose: “You could be the greatest/ You could be the best/ You could be an engineer and a scienTIST….”

Carolina repeatedly heard Newhouse’s advice to “do your best and forget the rest” as the team progressed through regional competitions leading to the finals. Ultimately, making the joint presentation with Ana and Jason, she was able to put aside the enormity of it all.

“We are Foshay FIRST Robotics Team 597, and NO ONE outworks The Wolverines,” the trio began in unison.

Despite limited resources, these teens had nudged change in their community, they pointed out in their presentation. Every team member volunteers at least 200 hours a year with math tutoring and charity events such as blood drives, breast cancer awareness, canned food drives, charity walks and Toys for Tots. They did robot demonstrations at elementary schools and outside the stadium during University of Southern California home football games. They mentored middle-school students in creating underwater robots for competition. They assisted seven Mexican robotics teams and one Canadian team. And this was on top of their robotics work.

The trio concluded in unison with a team slogan: “We build more than robots; we build character!”

Ana used to be too shy to speak publicly: “I had pretty bad social anxiety. I would get really nervous.”

But mentors helped. One, a Boeing engineer named Muhammed Okur, coached Ana and others for four years on speaking with tips like: Don’t talk too fast, practice as if standing in front of judges, dress appropriately, talk loudly, and learn to pick and choose what goes into a five-minute talk.

“They came a long way this year,” says Okur, who annually gives Foshay $5,000, which his employer doubles. As a teen, Okur was mentored by an architect. “I try not to forget where I came from. I work a long day and then spend my entire weekends working on a robot. If someone hadn’t spent time with me, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

He’s gratified to see mentored teens go on to college, as Newhouse says all Foshay robotics alumni have done. Ana and Carolina are to be among the latest; Ana is entering Woodbury University in the fall as a computer science major with hopes of becoming a video game designer, while Carolina is attending the University of California, Santa Barbara.

If Team 597 has come a long way, its inner-city school has come much further. Four decades ago when it was a junior high, Foshay was “more like a battle zone,” alumnus Jervey Tervalon wrote in a 2011 Los Angeles Times opinion piece. There were “fights everywhere. Teachers were beaten and chased out of classrooms by angry students.” Rival gang members hopped the fence to get onto school grounds. “We assumed they were armed, so we fled like wildebeests,” wrote Tervalon, noting that the school is now a model of success.

The turnaround is due in part to new principals who believe all kids can learn and who opened Advanced Placement classes to everyone. Foshay also benefited from USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative pre-college enrichment program, which provides intensive tutoring to prepare Foshay students for college. In 2007 Newsweek named Foshay, which now includes kindergarten through 12th grade, among the nation’s best high schools.

“When you’re in an inner-city school, people think bullets are flying and it’s unsafe. We have a very safe school,” principal Yvonne Edwards says. “I try to provide them with a private-school education in a public-school setting to let them know that nothing is impossible.”

Her main focus is “to get kids out of poverty.” Edwards tells students: Embrace your poverty. It makes us all stronger. It makes us work harder. And this is just temporary for you. That’s why you’re in robotics. That’s why you’re getting a degree in engineering. Because not only are you going to take yourself out of poverty, you can help your family, and your children are going to have more opportunities than you had. And then their children will.

Early in his tenure at Foshay, Newhouse realized he had a big problem. “The kids were falling asleep or just didn’t care. I kept thinking, I need something else. This is not enough. Just watching me talk, the kids didn’t want to learn.” Someone gave him information about FIRST Robotics. Cool, he thought. “I took shop class in high school,” says the rapid-talking ex-Marine and Three Stooges fan. He thought hands-on work would appeal.

The first few years, especially, it was a financial struggle. NASA made donations for a limit of two years, for example, so Newhouse later bootstrapped, learning to write grant applications, enlist team mentors (one working at Raytheon, three at Boeing and another at Northrop Grumman) and attract sponsors (including those mentors’ companies) for a robotics program that now includes middle-school students and costs more than $60,000 a year.

“We’re all working together. The school, the community—this is a cultural revolution we’re trying,” Newhouse says. “A lot of kids think sports or entertainment are the only way out. I’m trying to show them there’s so much out there. You guys could be designing video games.”

Students soon showed up at lunchtime, saying, “Mr. Newhouse, I need your computer to do my homework.” Some kids don’t have Internet or computers at home, explains Ana, one of five children whose parents operate a small janitorial business.

Angel Castaneda, who operates Team 597’s robot in competitions, used to get in trouble for taking the family’s TV apart and putting it back together to see how it worked. Next year he plans to major in mechanical engineering at California State University in hopes of working at a big tech company.

“In my neighborhood, you would see a lot of gangs,” says Angel, who adds that he wants to improve himself and his community. The youngest child of three, he has helped his mom clean houses. He often brings money during team trips to pay for incidentals for himself and other students.

Robotics has been a life-changer for all these students, Newhouse says. “I don’t have to grade papers anymore. I can teach math using robotics.” Want a robot to move 10 inches? He can say: Here’s the starting line. There’s the finish line. Now, figure out the circumference of the wheels and do other calculations to make it happen. “I can see kids—their eyes open.” He’s gratified when they shout, “I did it! I programmed a robot.”

Newhouse makes even his non-robotics students watch the documentary, Underwater Dreams, about Phoenix high school robotics teammates—the children of undocumented Mexican immigrants—who defeated MIT in competition. The story was also popularized in the movie Spare Parts. Newhouse finds inspiration and parallels in it: lack of money, language barriers.

“Look at the problems that these kids have overcome, just like you guys,” he says. “These guys found a way to beat the top college in the country. And every problem that they went through, they didn’t just give up. They tried to find solutions.”

Students initially fear Newhouse’s style. Robotics offers kids a way to learn to be self-starters, self-learners and self-disciplined, so he doesn’t spoon-feed. When assigning, he basically says: Here’s what needs to be done. No. 1, you need to be able to read the lesson. No. 2, in case you get lost, let me show you where resources are so you can figure things out on your own. If you run into trouble, ask your classmates for help. It’s teamwork. Between you and your classmates, you can figure out an answer probably faster than I can tell you how to do it. And it’s OK to make mistakes.

Newhouse says, “I used to scare them all. This is a new way of learning for them.”

Judging by online chatter during the April competition, Newhouse sensed his robotics team was a long shot at winning the Chairman’s Award. He saw no mention of his team. “We haven’t gone to Australia and started teams there, or New Zealand, like all these other FIRST teams, or gone to England and Europe like these other FIRST teams with all these resources.”

After dropping Carolina at the hotel to calm her jittery stomach following the presentation, Newhouse drove back to the competition. It was 4:30 p.m. on the final day. He got a text message from a judge asking where they were seated. Then later whether they were going to be around when the Chairman’s Award was announced.

Newhouse, whose team was in the nosebleed section, thought the award already would’ve been announced, so he asked who won. The judge couldn’t tell him, but said Newhouse better return quickly. Newhouse contacted mentors to move the team down from the fourth level to where the announcement would be made, but some unreachable kids were in long lines waiting for food, and others were still inching their way through the crowd. Newhouse hustled in just in time for the announcement.

“You all did a great job, but there’s one team that’s particularly special in this program,” the announcer begins. “At FIRST we honor the Chairman’s Award winners above all else because they are the role models and change agents reaching out and transforming whole communities to show through their actions the lessons of teamwork, gracious professionalism and dedication and all the good life lessons FIRST is really about. This is what the judges said: ‘This team knows that FIRST is more than robots. They are transforming their world and are role models for their school, family, community and beyond…’ ”

Newhouse was thinking, This can describe any team.

The announcer continued: “In a school where students struggle to find a future, this team reaches out to the youngest students to transform the culture from the bottom up…”

Newhouse kept listening for clues, until finally, “This team doesn’t just build robots. They build family. They build character.”

That’s us! he realized.

“I jumped up and started screaming,” principal Edwards remembers. “Once they started describing the team that went out to the neighborhood and changed the culture, I thought it was us.”

“I was speechless,” says Ana, who raced to the stage and eventually held a trophy in a team photo.

“All our team’s hard work—not only this year but for the past 15—had finally been recognized in front of the world,” remembers student media leader Antonio Yat Jr.

“My hands were shaking, my heart was pounding, and I felt like my head was going to fall off my shoulders,” Carolina says. “It proved that if we believe it, we can achieve it. Dreams do come true. We were the little team that could.”

As of press time, Team 597 had a new goal: raising money to travel to meet President Obama at the White House.

Did you know you can do the most remarkable things? Jim Rohn explains why humans can do incredible things despite the most impossible circumstances.

 

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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