mike koozmin/the s.f. examinerLowell High took its basketball robot to national finals.

mike koozmin/the s.f. examinerLowell High took its basketball robot to national finals.

Robotics spark youths' math, science interests

Spartacus the robot was officially retired from the competition circuit, but Lisa Vlaovich and Catya Padilla couldn’t bring themselves to let repairs slide. As they tightened screws and adjusted gears on the 2-foot-tall mobile robot, Vlaovich considered how far she had come over the past year.

“I actually never thought I’d be able to build a robot,” she said. “I thought it would be really difficult, like, only smart people can build robots. I guess this makes me smart!”

Vlaovich, 19, and Padilla, 18, are students at Treasure Island Job Corps, a U.S. Department of Labor job-training center for students between the ages of 16 and 24. The teens, who pitted their robot against others from around the world as part of the VEX Robotics program, learned not only job skills, such as programming and mechanical design, but also how to work together as a team on a challenging project.

In recent years, budget cuts have made it tough for public schools to provide much more than the basics, prompting fears that the next generation of workers will lack knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math. But more and more, students and educators in San Francisco are discovering that robotics competitions are an appealing way to promote these so-called STEM fields.

“Now, I think engineering isn’t as hard or as impossible,” said Andy Wong, robotics team captain at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, a public high school on Russian Hill. Galileo partnered with San Francisco’s Balboa High School to win first place in UC Berkeley’s Pioneers in Engineering competition last month.

Wong, who wants to pursue a career in engineering, said the hands-on experience was valuable for the dozen Galileo students, who built and programmed a robot that could shoot tennis balls into a goal. 

“It’s that feeling of, ‘I built something. This is what I made,’” he said. “A lot of the people on my team, many of them were low-income students, and they hadn’t gotten the opportunity to do this before.”

Wong, whose school entered the competition for the first time, said he was surprised only two teams from The City took to the field in Berkeley. It was the first time either team entered the regional competition, which is in its fourth year. But robotics is beginning to catch on, students said.

“A lot of schools around San Francisco have taken an interest,” said Walter Pan, a Lowell High School senior and member of his school’s robotics team, which entered the national FIRST Robotics competition for the first time this year and took its basketball-playing robot to the national championship.

Pan said Lowell students are advising other schools as they try to start their own teams.

“They really envision something big,” he said. “I think hands-on experience is definitely an important part of education.”

acrawford@sfexaminer.com

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