A rookie robotics team wins big in Texas

A culture of computer science and robotics in a Houston-area school district consistently produces students who win local, state and national competitions.

In the heat of the moment, the phone seemed to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

The rookie robotics team of five students from Carver High School had just minutes until the start of the final competition of the day at the University Interscholastic League Robotics First Division State Championship in San Antonio, Texas. Now they had a problem: the smartphone they used to control their robot had somehow gone missing.

No remote meant no way to control their bot.

From L to R: Teacher and coach Timothy Lewis; LaShawn Bolton, 11th Grade Scouter and Human Player; Diego Davial, 10th Grade Driver; Keith Tey, 11th Grade Mechanic and Driver; Quincy Kemany, 11th Grade Programmer; Pedro Maya, 11th Grade Programmer (Photo courtesy of Timothy Lewis)

“It was kind of a scurry to get everything together and talk with the referee before the start of the match,” said Keith Tey, a rising senior and the robot’s driver. “During that process, our phone disappeared. The match is about to start, and we can’t find it. I ended up taking our [partner team’s] phone, but the robot couldn’t do anything — wouldn’t start, kept crashing, the camera wouldn’t work.”

For most teams, this would spell disaster. But the team of five boys from Houston aren’t like most teams.

Despite the missing controller, the team ranked fourth overall and managed to take home the competition’s prestigious Robot Innovation Award on behalf of their bot’s “outstanding genesis of innovation, differentiation, functionality and robustness.”

They later found their phone sitting nearby on a bleacher. It seemed to have been tampered with — the swipe-up lock had been removed, and some other settings had been changed. But whether it was outright malicious sabotage or a harmless misunderstanding, the team was unperturbed.

“I’m proud of my robotics team, and also myself for coaching these young men,” coach/teacher Timothy Lewis tweeted after the competition. The team from Carver was well on their way to making a splash.

A culture of computer science

It was the team’s first time participating at an in-person robotics competition together, but team coach Timothy Lewis is a competition veteran. Lewis has led numerous robotics teams over the years, and currently teaches robotics, engineering and electronics in the Aldine Independent School District, just a few miles north of Houston, Texas. He has roots in the area, and graduated from an Aldine school himself.

“I’m a product of Aldine,” Lewis said. “I’m proud that we have a true engineering program.”

Teacher and team coach Timothy Lewis gives an interview after the competition. (Photo courtesy of Timothy Lewis)

Carver is one of several magnet schools in the district and has a specific focus on engineering and performing/visual arts. The high school will soon allow students to receive both a high school diploma and an associate degree through its P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools) program, which will start in the ‘21-’22 school year.

While none of the boys on the team can enroll in the P-TECH program because it’s only available to incoming freshmen, all are still on track to receive a special engineering endorsement before they graduate. Lewis built the school’s robotics program from the ground up, which included lobbying the district administration for support, recruiting students, and setting up a classroom to support a sophisticated robotics program.

“I can remember starting my teaching career at Carver, and robotics was just an after-school extra curricular,” Lewis said. “The offer to teach robotics at Carver was like music to my ears. I was happy — finally we could utilize more time to do what I love, not just through an after-school class, but during class time. I can offer more to my students, from their freshman to senior years.”

Shaina Glass said the district has made teaching computer science and robotics a priority within the last few years. Glass is the Code.org Regional Program Manager for the Rice University School Mathematics Project and former Program Director of Technology Applications and STEM at Aldine.

“Over the last three years, Aldine has been an advocate for computer science,” said Glass. “Aldine as a whole is pushing students to compete in computer science competitions on the high school level. We have had several schools and students participate locally in national competitions, such as the Congressional App Challenge.”

Glass helped guide the creation of a framework that embedded computer science in Aldine schools, and the district currently uses all three levels of Code.org’s curriculum (CS Fundamentals for elementary school, CS Discoveries for middle school and CS Principles for high school).

Given the culture of computer science and robotics in the district, it’s no surprise that all five students on the team — Diego Davila, Keith Tey, LaShawn Bolton, Pedro Maya and Quincy Kemany — were drawn together through a shared love of robotics and programming. All were encouraged to pursue the field by teachers, or in some cases, each other.

From L to R: LaShawn, Keith and Diego at work on the bot during the competition. (Photo courtesy of Timothy Lewis)

Quincy, a rising senior and the most experienced robotics programmer on the team, recruited Keith. LaShawn joined after seeing his friends compete and win in robotics competitions his freshman year. Pedro was focused on programming, but was drawn to robotics after going to a STEM competition with a technology teacher in a previous year. Diego, the youngest on the team, was recruited to the team when he was in just 7th grade by Lewis himself. He’s been the team’s driver ever since.

“In robotics, I love the intricate thinking process and working through problems and finding solutions,” said Quincy, a programmer on the team.

For LaShawn, part of the draw is seeing hard work pay off. “During my freshman year, a lot of my friends were in robotics and went to regionals. I saw how rewarding robotics was and how it could be an amazing opportunity,” he said. “After we got home from the state competition, I told my grandma about it and she was so shocked and so proud. She encouraged me to pursue it at a higher level. So it’s something I’m thinking about a lot now.”

Pedro found his way to robotics through programming. He has diverse interests, and says robotics allows him to experiment in a way that’s different from writing code. “I always wanted to do software and programming, but robotics has opened some new doors,” he said. He is the team’s second programmer, along with Quincy. “I like software and I like tinkering with things — robotics is very hands-on.”

More than just teammates, the boys are all close friends.

“We’ve known each other since middle school and have gotten to know each other better during the competition,” said Diego. “The team had its ups and downs, but we stayed together and we did our best.”

Building a super bot

The team had their hands full with their inaugural build for the First Robotics competition. Their bot is a combination of two different robotics platforms, VEX Robotics and REV Robotics. Lewis said the systems aren’t out-of-the-box compatible, so the team also had to work through 3D printing custom parts like chains, sprockets, gears and wheels to make the bot work.

“Nobody else at the competition had a VEX-integrated bot like ours,” said Lewis.

Each year, the competition requires teams to engage in a new game where they design, build, test, and program autonomous and driver operated robots that must perform a series of tasks. Teams must use two Android Devices to control their robot and compete in a series of task-based events. One Android device is mounted directly onto the Robot and acts as a Robot Controller, while the other Android device is connected to a pair of gamepads and acts as the Driver Station.

The bot must meet certain size and power requirements, but otherwise, the design, construction and components are all up to the teams.

Diego says the team christened their bot “the Hulk” because of its green and purple coloring. It’s an impressive, fully autonomous machine, and uses a camera and a mechanized launcher to expertly shoot rings into a target with incredible accuracy. Using a robotic arm, it can also lower a baton perfectly into a designated space.

The team spent hundreds of hours building their bot and refining its processes, with members squeezing in time to work on it whenever they could.

“We were working from beginning to end,” said LaShawn. “We were always working on that bot. We’d get out of class and work on the bot. We’d be on the bus and be working on the bot.”

“​​I would go back to school after work just to work on the bot,” echoed Keith. “We’d go back to school during the summer.”

Normally the team would go on to compete in a national competition and then possibly a world cup competition, but it’s not clear if either is happening this year due to uncertainty wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, the team is still looking toward the future.

“We’ve got our eyes on the big prize for next year,” said Keith.

-Kirsten O’Brien and Meghan Gannon, Code.org

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