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You can hear Kanye West’s voice being pumped loudly on the speaker while some students are coding on the computer island and others are wiring, cutting, or putting together robot parts. These are the LA Streetbots at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, a robotics club that competes in a worldwide event known as the FIRST Robotic Competition.
In this competition, student teams around the world each build and program a robot to execute tasks competing against other robots. The process takes months to complete. Most of the LA Streetbots members have been part of the club their entire high school careers and have spent countless hours working on robots.
“It’s almost like a full time job toward the end of the season,” says Miguel Rodríguez, 17, who graduated in 2019 and now attends UC Berkeley..Club members invest about 30 hours a week, while taking a variety of Advanced Placement (AP) classes and doing other extra curricular activities, he says.
Jesús Cervantes, 17, started getting involved in robotics his sophomore year. “It started as a way to hang out with my friends,” he says, “but after a while, it became a passion to just be able to help design, code and manufacture parts to fit into the robot. It’s something that got my interest.” He is now attending Stanford University.
Students work both individually and together with the help of an adult mentor and an engineer. Most of the team members taught themselves to code, build, design and wire. Many times they work on a design for weeks, only to have to throw it out and start over when it doesn’t work out.
The team’s annual budget ranges from $20,000-25,000, which covers material for the robot, entrance fees, transportation to competitions and other expenses. Its donors last year were the i.am.angel Foundation by performer will.i.am, Raytheon and Walt Disney Imagineering. The school also provides some funding.
Jesse Ibarra, a math teacher at Roosevelt, is the club’s sponsor. Ibarra supervises the students and helps them however he can. “I admire that they have that thirst for knowledge, to want to create something and achieve something,” Ibarra says. “I admire that they enjoy coming out to the shop and are willing to put in the work.”
The club is broken into three teams: design, manufacturing and electrical. “When everyone is there, it is pretty cool seeing everyone working on their own little world working on the robot, and eventually we all just come together at the end of the day and put it together,” says Rodríguez.
Christopher Grandara, a retired engineer who helps the team, says, “I come over and assist with the students [and] help them with resources. I don’t tell them how to do it. I give them choices so they can figure out on their own how to do things.”
While some schools provide for-credit robotics classes, the LA Streetbots is strictly an after-school commitment.
Things are different at the S.T.E.M. Academy of Boyle Heights, a charter high school next door to Roosevelt. “Robotics is embedded in the school day, so students can see the application of what they’re learning,” says Israel Hernández, an engineering teacher and the sponsor of the academy’s robotics club, Los STEMateros. Several engineers mentor students in its club throughout the school year. The two local teams have little interaction beyond competing with each other.
In 2018, Los STEMateros won the LA regional competition and advanced to the world championship in Houston, where it came in 50th out of 67 teams. Last year, the team made it to the Orange County Semi-Finals and the LA Regional Quarterfinals, where it was ranked 13th of 56 teams. The LA Streetbots placed 18th out of 56 teams in the LA regional competition this year.
LA Streetbots team members say that going to a competition is the best part of the whole process. Feeling satisfied about their robot and creating connections with new people are rewarding.
“It is fun building the robot essentially from scratch with the team. It is even more fun to see the final product itself be out there in competition, and seeing everyone else’s robots as well,” says Anthony Navarro, 17, who now attends UC Merced.
Win or lose, the students are committed to their team. “It is a team that keeps on striving to do better, and sometimes we may mess up. We are in it to win it,” says Cervantes.
Many of the members of the program plan to major in computer science or engineering in college and go into the science, technology, engineering or math fields. Those who have yet to graduate from Roosevelt say they will be guiding and mentoring the new team members for this year’s robotics competition.