Thursday, September 27, 2007

Triumph at HESTEC Robotics Day

Today I was lucky enough to bring a group of 5 students to HESTEC Robotics Day at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, TX. HESTEC stands for the Hispanic Engineering, Science and Techonology Conference, which is now a week long event. This year's event was big enough to draw Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who spoke glowingly of the conference's accomplishments over the years and the beneficial work of local Congressman Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX). We saw some of her speech via video, but we were whisked away to our day-long project shortly after she began.

The students were given a huge 600+ piece K'NEX EDUCATION Solar Energy System. The goal was to build a working car that would be raced against teams from 40+ area schools later in the day. I was not allowed to help them--I was relegated to keeping time, offering words of encouragement and trying to keep the other teams from blatantly cheating. Instead, the students were aided by a university engineering student who worked well with them.

I saw immediately how excited and engaged these students were. As soon as we began they were talking about aerodynamics, how engines work, and how different weights and designs would effect the final product. After 2.5 hours of work inside a campus fine arts auditorium, however, our car was only partly finished. We headed out to the campus track to test and fix our car.

As per usual in south Texas, it was blistering in the midday sun (my face is an enchanting shade of red) and our car was not ready. The kids never gave up--there were plenty of teams that threw in the towel early, but these kids worked hard to figure out how to get it working.

The first of 3 trial runs was a disaster. The car didn't move an inch. When the trials started, the time in between to make adjustments was short, so much so that the kids were willing to skip their second trial to completely redo the car to make it work. They tore it all apart, moved the engine around and changed entirely the way it made the wheels spin.

But this time, it worked.

There was almost no time for testing--one dry run was it before it was time for our third and last trial. The rules stated that the top ten times of all trial runs would make it to the finals. I had been running back and forth between the other trials and their diligent work, and it became clear that very few of the cars were even reaching the finish line. This meant that with one good run we had as good a chance as anybody to make the top ten.

And so there I was, sweating and trying to calm my restless leg, feeling useless and helpless because I couldn't do anything to help them besides tell them that they still had an excellent chance.

Once the car started, it just kept going, reaching the finish line successfully in about 17.6 seconds. The kids were ecstatic for simply making a successful run, as they too had seen very few cars make it at all. When the results came in, we didn't just make it by a thread. We rocked the house: the 3rd fastest trial of the 40+ teams out there. I could barely contain myself that not only had they persevered and made the finals, but had a legitimate shot at placing and going home big winners.

Did I mention the prizes at stake?
  1. 1st Place: Laptops for every student
  2. 2nd Place: iPods
  3. 3rd Place: iPod Nanos
Although these had piqued their interest at the beginning of the day, it was clear this was the farthest thing from their minds. They wanted to win, but not as much as they wanted it to work as it had in that last miracle run. As the race began, our hearts collectively stopped, and almost as soon as they did they resumed again, for it was all over too soon.

I could rehash the griping about the inconsistent enforcement of the rules and the underhanded tactics of other teams that I made to the people in charge after our miracle run ended, but the truth remains: in what could have been their finest hour as would-be engineers, the car once again wouldn't work. Even if the team that went on to win first place had been dealt with appropriately, it wouldn't have changed our outcome, and that was the hardest thing to accept.

Except that it was only me who had trouble accepting it. My students were disappointed, but still riding the high of success in the face of failure, of triumph on what could have been dismissed as just another day off from school. They saw and heard my outrage, and they understood it, but their spirits were never crushed. I realized that they had accomplished everything I could have hoped for and more. In their words:
  • "At least we had fun!"
  • "I learned never to give up."
  • "We can come back next year, right?"
  • "When's the next competition?"
  • "Sir, are you going to have the kit? Because I want to build another one."
With our great success on Robotics Day, now my administration is suggesting I start some sort of engineering club. I hope I'm lucky enough to be able to.