Subject: Poor Latino high school students beat MIT team in
robot-building contest.

[LA Times]

Perfectly fluent in technology
It was a classic triumph of the underdog: Four impoverished Latino high
school students beat an MIT team in a robot-building contest.

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post

April 2, 2005

WASHINGTON — Stinky is one ugly robot, a raggedy contraption constructed of crudely painted, cheap plastic pipes pasted together with gobs of the foul-smelling glue that gave the monstrosity its name.

Stinky's creators didn't look all that impressive either — four teenage guys in baggy pants and sneakers, all of them illegal Mexican immigrants attending Carl Hayden High School in funky West Phoenix, Ariz.

When Stinky arrived at last year's Marine Advanced Technology Remotely
Operated Vehicle Competition — an underwater robotics contest sponsored
by NASA and the Office of Naval Research — it was greeted with barely
suppressed snickers. Nobody expected Stinky to compete with the robot
from MIT, a handsome machine created by 12 elite engineering and computer science students and decorated with a sticker from ExxonMobil, the company that donated $5,000 to the MIT team.

But the kids from Hayden High beat MIT and the rest of the competition—
an amazing upset chronicled in an inspiring story in the April issue of Wired magazine.

Americans love a tale of scrappy underdogs triumphing against long odds, and "La Vida Robot" by Joshua Davis is a classic. It's got all the ingredients of a feel-good movie of the week: colorful characters, high drama, low comedy and a happy ending.

Well, a sort-of-happy ending.

It began when a couple of Hayden science teachers put up fliers offering to coach a team in the contest, which requires the construction of a remote-controlled robot that can explore a sunken mock-up of a submarine.


Four kids signed up: Cristian Arcega, the school's science whiz, who lived in a wooden shack attached to his parents' trailer; Lorenzo Santillan, a former gang member who loves fixing cars; Oscar Vazquez, an ROTC student with leadership skills; and Luis Aranda, a big, burly kid with the muscle to wrestle the 100-pound robot into place.

They raised $800 from local businesses and built Stinky out of PVC pipes
and off-the-shelf computer parts. They tested it in a local pool, then headed to Santa Barbara last summer for the contest.

"The Carl Hayden teammates tried to hide their nervousness, but they were
intimidated," Davis writes. "Lorenzo had never seen so many white people
in one place."

Immediately, they had a problem: When Aranda lowered Stinky into the
pool, they realized they had a leak. Not only did they have to re-solder
every wire in the machine overnight, Vazquez told his teammates, but
they also had to find something absorbent to keep moisture away from the
circuitry.

"Absorbent?" Santillan asked, recalling countless TV ads. "Like a tampon?"

Soon Santillan was in the nearest supermarket, trying to work up the courage to ask a young woman for advice on which brand of tampon might work best in an underwater robot.

The woman laughed and made her recommendation. "I hope you win," she said.

And win they did, copping the grand prize after Stinky performed a task
the MIT robot couldn't — sucking fluid from a tiny container 12 feet
underwater.

They also won the awards for best design and best technical writing.

"Us illiterate people from the desert?" Santillan said he was thinking when they won, amazed that a bunch of "English as a second language" kids had just beaten America's most prestigious engineering school.

Their moment of triumph was sweet but short-lived.

Vazquez and Aranda graduated from Hayden last spring, but they're not in college now, Davis writes, because they're illegal immigrants and thus
ineligible for student loans or cheap in-state tuition. Vazquez is hanging drywall, and Aranda is filing papers at a Social Security office.

Santillan and Arcega are still at Hayden, Davis says, but their prospects
for college also look dubious.

Is there anybody out there who can give these kids a break?

I bet those white boys are probably speaking spanish now, asking themselves "Que Pasa" :o

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