The concept for the 2004 MATE robotics competition centers on the demise of a fictional U-boat that was supposedly torpedoed in the Caribbean in 1942. The background story for the submarine is that it was engulfed by a mysterious explosion off the coast of Florida, and then the captain was rescued by a Spanish-speaking fisherman named Pedro Sanchez—which captures Lorenzo’s attention.
Like the FIRST competition, the MATE competition strives to get the kids excited about science and imbue the discipline with a sense of adventure. It is also not a surprise that Lorenzo is struck by Pedro Sanchez’s name, as the students have so few positive images of figures of their background because of society’s prejudice against them.
During the contest, students explore a mock-up of the submarine in a swimming pool at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There are seven tasks: students have to build an ROV that measures the submarine’s length and calculates its depth, can navigate inside the submarine, and retrieve the captain’s bell. The ROV also has to recover two “lost” pieces of research equipment, sample liquid out of cargo barrels, and determine the temperature of water seeping from a cold-water spring.
Even though the U-Boat concept is meant to simulate adventure, the tasks that the ROV must complete are very daunting. The list makes it clear just how difficult the competition would be for anyone, let alone kids who have a small amount of knowledge and even less money to contribute to building this ROV.
The group is daunted, but Oscar tries to be optimistic and motivational. Still, even Fredi and Allan are privately nervous: the tasks are difficult. They want to give the kids a chance to accomplish something beyond what they think they can do. If they fail completely, however, it will only reinforce the impression that they don’t belong in the competition at all.
The competition is split into two classes: Ranger (which is geared toward high school teams) and Explorer (geared toward college students). Both classes sound challenging; there is even a college competing at the high school level. On the other hand, the Explorer class has teams like MIT competing. Fredi reasons that if they’re going to lose either way, they should be beat by college teams. That way, the kids can say that they lost to MIT.
Fredi’s solution to giving the students confidence is by making sure that if they lose, they can still be proud of what they’ve accomplished—while also trying to give them the assurance that they can compete with the top teams in the country.
Fredi and Allan tell the kids of their plan. Oscar wonders why they want to go up against the best school in the country; Fredi says the main goal is for them to have a good time and learn. Oscar responds that he doesn’t want to enter something to lose, and Allan chimes in that they will work hard and build a great robot. Fredi says they can aim not to finish last, trying to be realistic. Lorenzo giggles, saying that should be their motto: “Don’t finish last.”
It seems everyone goes into the competition with both excitement and trepidation; confident as he is in his students’ skills, even Fredi realizes the immensity of the odds they are up against. This will make their final success all the more impressive.
Oscar takes charge, determined to do better than not finishing last. Their first task is to figure out how to pay for everything. MATE covers meals and housing and provides $100 for building supplies, but the team is going to need a lot more than that. Fredi prints up brochures asking people to donate to the club. Lorenzo asks a cousin to donate to his underwater-robotics competition, but she thinks that he’s joking and refuses. Cristian phones aunts and uncles in California, who say they’ll think about it but never send anything in.
Even though Fredi still has his doubts about how well they might be able to do in the competition, he still works to give the students the tools to succeed on their own, without doing the work for them. It is notable, as well, that the students’ even face stereotypes with their own family and friends, who are in disbelief that they might be able to participate in a competition like this.
Luis makes some progress, approaching his boss at the restaurant, Harold. Harold is astonished to learn that he is competing in a NASA-sponsored underwater-robotics contest and writes a check for $100. Oscar stops by the mattress factory at which his father works. Oscar spent his summers there and knew the owner. He gives his pitch, and the owner writes a check for $400, while another employee matches the donation, giving them a budget of about $900. It isn’t much, but to them it seems like an extravagant amount to spend on a robot.
The students’ underdog status creates its own reward, in a way. Some of the people around them are so impressed by the simple fact of their participation in the competition that they donate to their efforts. This happens after the competition as well, when Davis publishes his article in Wired: readers are so impressed with the students’ potential that they donate more money to send them to college.
Now that they have some funding, the students begin to make models to see how big their ROV needs to be to accommodate propellers, sensors, and controls. They then talk through the first tasks they have to complete: measuring the depth and length of the submarine.
Building the ROV becomes the ultimate test of collaboration for the students. They clearly are thinking logically and methodically about the next steps that they need to take.
Lorenzo thinks of the simplest approach: a length of string. He and Cristian go back and forth about how to make sure that the string can reach the bottom of the pool, and how they could measure its length. Lorenzo then comes up with a tape measure, which could hook onto the submarine, and then the robot could drive backward to measure it. They could point a camera at the tape measure and read the length from a video monitor.
The students are forced to come up with simple ideas from a practical standpoint, because they don’t have a ton of resources to carry out something more complicated. Yet whe obstacles of their situation—like those in their broader lives—again become a source of opportunity. What’s more, it is simple ideas like Lorenzo’s that will be rewarded by the judges at the competition.
Oscar agrees that this could work; Lorenzo beams with pride. Cristian points out that it won’t work for depth, though, because there’s nothing at the bottom of the pool to hook to the tape measure. Oscar pitches using a laser tape measure. Cristian asks if it would work underwater; Fredi suggests that they should call someone to find out.
Early on in the robot-building process, the students one up each other, trying to prove their own intelligence and why their own ideas are the best. But gradually they realize that their ideas inspire one another to come up with the best possible solutions, like a true team.
Oscar takes charge in making the calls. He googles laser tape measures and comes across a company called Distagage in Florida that sells lasers that can read distance as far as 330 feet. They sell for $375 to $725 each. Fredi encourages Oscar to call anyway, just to ask for advice.
Fredi again gives the team support and guidance but won’t do the work for them. Without Fredi, Oscar may not have called Distagage at all, but Fredi still encourages Oscar to call the company himself.
When Oscar calls, he speaks with Greg De Tray, who has formed Distagage recently. He had never intended to get into the laser range finder business; he is an insurance adjuster and he bought one to avoid having to physically measure the mold-filled rooms he often inspected. The device’s manufacturer only sold them in bulk, however, and so he bought fifty devices and now sells them to anyone interested. Still, De Trey is surprised to get a call from Oscar.
De Tray’s reason for starting his company Distagage is not dissimilar to the students’ reasons for searching for a laser range finder: it is a creative solution to a problem. This also seems to be why he respects their efforts in the competition.
Oscar asks De Tray if his range finders work underwater. De Tray doesn’t know, but he’s interested in finding out. He tests it and calls Oscar and the team back to explain that it doesn’t work. The reading is always off by 30 percent. But Cristian, listening in, realizes that that’s due to the index of refraction: it takes the laser longer to travel through water than air, so the reading is off. If they simply take thirty percent off of the readings, they’ll get the right measurement.
These flashes of problem solving, like Cristian’s inspiration about the index of refraction, are what make the students feel like they’re flexing their creativity when it comes to building the robot. The sense of accomplishment also makes them feel closer as a team and as friends.
De Tray is impressed with the kids’ ingenuity and excitement. He offers to let them borrow one of his devices. Lorenzo is speechless: no one has ever given him anything of significant value before. He never thought that random strangers would be interested in helping him. Oscar is simply grateful and tells De Tray how much they appreciate the offer.
This episode underscores that though the students may lack the resources of other teams, they make up for it in enthusiasm and creativity. This is what appeals to De Tray, who is also impressed with their taking the initiative to ask for help and sees the value in lending the students his expertise and equipment.
While working on the project, Lorenzo rarely does his homework, as it seems meaningless to him. As a result, he receives mostly Cs and Ds. He doesn’t mind; he is having more fun in the robotics closet than doing his regular schoolwork. But Fredi minds. He explains to Lorenzo that if he doesn’t pass all of his classes by the end of the semester, he’ll have to kick him off of the team.
While Fredi has already inspired Lorenzo and the other students to want to learn and participate in the robot competition, he also sees the importance of making sure that the students are able to learn and succeed in school as a whole.
Spurred by Fredi’s rule, Lorenzo starts studying. He sits in the front row during class and does all his homework. When he can’t figure a question out, he asks Cristian to explain the theory. Cristian isn’t a great teacher—he doesn’t have a ton of patience—but Lorenzo is a perceptive student. Lorenzo starts getting As and his GPA begins to climb.
To complete the temperature-reading task, Oscar tracks down a thermometer supplier in Connecticut. He speaks with Frank Swankoski, a temperature engineer at the company. This is the second call Swankoski has received in a month from amateur roboticists. But unlike the earlier call, in which college students merely ordered what they wanted, Oscar asks for Swankoski’s advice and puts him on speakerphone.
Swankoski, like De Tray, is impressed with the kids’ excitement and creativity—but he is equally impressed that they have the initiative to ask him for help, unlike the other students who felt that they knew all of the information they needed.
Swankoski explains that they want a “thermocouple with a cold junction compensator.” He says that this device is made of two different metals placed side by side. The voltage conducted between the metals will allow the students to measure the temperature. Swankoski offers to donate a device to them, saying that he believes they can beat MIT. When Swankoski hangs up, Oscar looks at the rest of the group and says that they have to believe in themselves, because now they have other people believing in them.
The students’ creativity and initiative again pay off. This moment further underscores the importance of encouragement and support for these kids—once they realize others believe in them, they are more apt to start believing in themselves as well.
In November, Fredi takes some of his marine science students, including Oscar and Luis, to see the ocean. On the drive, Oscar and Luis bond talking about cars. Oscar is surprised to find that even though Luis is quiet, he isn’t shy—it just seems like no one has ever asked him a question before.
The team also brings together some unlikely friendships, as Oscar and Luis deepen their conversations on this field trip. Thus, the team not only represents a fun activity, but also a means for the students to find a sense of belonging.
The ocean is mind-boggling to Oscar and Luis. They have seen it only briefly and have never been in it before. On the same trip, Fredi takes the students to SeaBotix, a San Diego-based ROV manufacturer, with the company president, Donald Rodocker. Rodocker takes the students into the laboratory to show off some of his latest vehicles.
Little details like this one remind readers just how isolated the kids are—especially considering the fact that they are designing a robot that is meant to navigate the ocean. As Allan and Fredi pointed out earlier, they are at a serious disadvantage, as most of the other teams reside on the coasts.
Rodocker shows them a robot called the LBV (little benthic vehicle), which is amazingly compact. Still, it has to contend with the ROV’s biggest problem: its tether. The tether is a bundle of cables that allows the robot’s operator to control propellers, sensors, and manipulators. The cables also carry video signals and usually supply the robot’s power. One of the biggest engineering challenges is how to minimize the size of those cables.
Davis’s early explanation of one of the ROV’s biggest issues here makes Cristian’s suggestion about putting the battery on board (and thus reducing its tether) even more remarkable later, as that kind of ingenuity and pioneering strategy is what gives the team a leg up.
Rodocker talks about some of the prototypes they’ve built of one feature of the LBV: its pincer, which is capable of grabbing a variety of objects, and would be the perfect tool to complete the mission’s tasks requiring them to retrieve a variety of objects. Emboldened by the experiences of talking to De Tray and Swankoski, Oscar asks if Rodocker would consider lending them one of his prototypes. Rodocker easily agrees.
This encounter with Rodocker illuminates some of the privilege that the other teams might have. Whereas other teams might automatically be able to ask for things or simply be given money, the Carl Hayden students come to the slow realization that there are people out there who may want to help them. If they had not had the early experiences with De Tray and Swankoski, they might not then have gotten this additional pincer. Success in many ways begets success, which is what makes it particularly hard for students from poorer backgrounds to get started in the first place; yet, as this story makes clear, even small moments of success can put kids on the right path.
Back in the car, Oscar and Luis marvel at their good fortune. They have seen the ocean, become friends, and gotten a state-of-the art pincer on loan. But then, as they return to Arizona, the car is stopped by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Luis has a green card, but Oscar is in the country illegally. Fredi asks for their school IDs and instructs them not to speak. An officer asks for their identification, and Oscar imagines the worst. After the officer scrutinizes their IDs, he lets them pass and tells them to have a good trip. Fredi speeds away.
The book is structured so that just as readers begin to forget about the students’ immigration status, Davis reminds readers that the students could be in danger even on a simple school field trip to California. The incident foreshadows the fact that even amidst their success in the competition, the students experience severe barriers afterwards as a result of being undocumented.
Oscar returns to the robotics closet and resolves to put the checkpoint incident behind him. He doesn’t want to let his fear control him. Oscar positions the thermocouple, the range finder, and the pincer in their model. Then, he, Cristian, and Lorenzo strategize about how to build the real ROV. Metal will be more compact, but expensive. Cristian proposes glass syntactic flotation foam, which saw in a documentary, but which would also be very expensive. They settle on PVC (thick white plastic) instead. They can run the wires inside the pipe, and the air in the pipes will help the robot float.
Again, the students’ lack of resources becomes in some way an asset because it forces them to think more creatively and more practically about their robot’s material. Yet again, this obstacle actually turns into opportunity: when they settle on PVC pipes, they are inadvertently giving their robot a sleeker design, and avoiding issues that other teams have to solve like how to make their robot more buoyant.
Luis drives to Home Depot and buys twenty dollars’ worth of PVC pipe. Luis, Cristian, Oscar, and Lorenzo gather in the robotics closet. Cristian sketches out the ROV and calculates the amount of air that will be trapped in the PVC pipes. He concludes that they’ll need something heavy to weigh the machine down. They consider putting weights on the ROV, but that would clutter the machine. Cristian suggests putting the battery on board.
Cristian’s solution is not only novel, but it is a practical way of solving two issues at once. This kind of creativity and ingenuity as they work to put their robot together like a puzzle is what gives them a major advantage in the competition.
The idea is novel: most teams don’t put the battery on the ROV, because a leak would take down the whole system. But putting it at the bottom of the ROV would allow them to have a thinner cable tether to their controls, stabilize the robot, and limit voltage loss. Lorenzo says that the idea is “badass.” Oscar is nervous, but when Cristian says that if they can’t waterproof a case to hold the battery they shouldn’t be in an underwater contest, Luis agrees, and Oscar relents.
Even though Oscar has his doubts about Cristian’s plan, the boys begin to be motivated by each other’s ideas and excited by the plans that they’re able to come up with. Lorenzo in particular—with his unique descriptors—makes clear when he thinks an idea is particularly bold, adding to their sense of adventure.
For Lorenzo, the robotics team feels like family, with Fredi and Allan as surrogate parents. A team spirit has developed, and the rest of the team has adopted his motivation and discipline in making sure that they are getting good grades and sitting at the front of their classes.
Davis describes how the motivation Fredi instilled in Lorenzo has also spread to the other students, as they work hard to make sure that they can remain good students and support each other. This reiterates the value of teamwork and having a strong support network.
Even though Lorenzo has now found a family, the rest of the school still taunts him. One day in health class, a kid starts teasing him about his long hair and flicks gum into it. It takes three days for Lorenzo’s mother Laura to loosen the gum, as Lorenzo is insistent on not cutting his hair. When another student follows him home and insults his mother, Lorenzo snaps and punches him. The kid returns the favor, bruising Lorenzo’s eye socket.
Even though Lorenzo has a new group of friends, the old dynamics with other students have not disappeared. The things that make him suited for the robotics team—his unique perspective, his good nature—do not protect him against being bullied, and he continues to face a lot of obstacles in his life.
At home, Lorenzo’s dad Pablo notices his swollen eye and offers to beat the kid up. Lorenzo is happy that his dad is expressing concern—his dad never cared about his interest in robotics. The next day, Lorenzo is called into the principal’s office. He could be expelled, but instead he is assigned to take another round of anger management courses.
Lorenzo’s relationship with his father Pablo continues to be an obstacle for him, as it also threatens to ruin the good standing that he has in school when he sees that fighting catches his father’s attention.
Fredi tracks Lorenzo down and tells him to stop fighting. He explains that he was beat up in high school too, and that getting angry means that the other kids have won, because that’s what they want. Fredi sees that he is battling for the future of an unusual but talented kid, and that it would be so easy for Lorenzo to get caught in “the tractor-beam pull of poverty and low expectations.”
Fredi tells Lorenzo that the next time someone wants to fight him, he should pretend to have a seizure instead. When Fredi simulates having a seizure, Lorenzo laughs at his teacher’s goofiness and earnestness. The humor takes a little bit of weight off of him, and he realizes that he could never be a brawler. He can only be what he is: a sweet kid with an unusual perspective.
Fredi steps in as a kind of surrogate parent to alleviate the anxiety that Lorenzo feels and to reward his behavior as a good student. This interaction emphasizes how crucial good mentors can be, particularly for kids who simply need to see that someone cares about them.
The third ROV task is the hardest: extracting a liquid sample from inside a barrel while hovering. Oscar and Cristian are pretty sure the task will be impossible, so they assign it to Lorenzo. Other Explorer class teams consider using techniques like vacuum-sealed containers and screw-activated syringes, or a dual pump system. Lorenzo decides to use a balloon.
Comparing Lorenzo’s strategy to the strategy of other teams, it is easy to see how Lorenzo’s lack of knowledge becomes an advantage. Instead of focusing on high-tech gadgets and then being forced to solve other issues presented by those gadgets, Lorenzo comes up with the simplest solution he can.
The balloon does not have air when deflated and so it won’t add buoyancy. It expands and contracts easily and costs almost nothing. Fredi suggests using a sump pump to suction the fluid into the balloon. They find a small pump and copper tubing at Home Depot for a total of $37.
The simplest solution also ends up being the cheapest solution, and the combination of these two factors is something that the judges at the MATE competition highlight as the reason that they grant the students the Design Elegance award.
Back in the robotics closet, Lorenzo experiments, gluing PVC fittings to the pump and affixing the copper pipe so that it juts out. He pulls a balloon over the other end of the pump. When he tests it, the system’s only flaw is that when the ROV is pulled out of the water to retrieve the sample, the balloon falls over and the liquid spills out.
Lorenzo’s invention is not perfected without trial and error, but Lorenzo gets excited about testing different solutions—evidencing his growing belief in his own ability to find answers to problems.
Lorenzo tries affixing the balloon in a variety of ways, but each time the balloon falls over. Fredi encourages him, and Lorenzo then tries to put the balloon inside the top half of a liter soda bottle to catch it. The liter bottle is too restricting, and so Lorenzo uses a milk container instead. It works beautifully. Fredi is amazed at the “practical, cheap, and ingenious solution.” Fredi is hit by a wave of emotion, and says, “You did it.” Lorenzo smiles, responding, “I did it.”
Fredi’s encouragement rewards Lorenzo’s creativity, as he is able to come up with a creative solution to the task at hand. The confidence and sense of accomplishment is exactly what Fredi had hoped to give to Lorenzo, and he becomes equally proud of what the teenager is able to do under his guidance.
Lorenzo’s mother Laura asks him to read a letter that arrived for them in English. Lorenzo explains that it’s a foreclosure notice. They’re going to lose the house, because they haven’t been paying the mortgage. Lorenzo finds a letter from a realtor who advertises his ability to prevent evictions. He calls the man and the guy agrees to talk to the bank and negotiate a deal. Lorenzo hopes that he isn’t a fraud.
Meanwhile, Davis continues to elaborate on some of the additional obstacles that the students face, like Lorenzo’s imminent eviction. Like the immigration issue, this serves to underscore how impressive it is that these students are able to accomplish so much, even while worrying about severe issues back at home.
Oscar and Luis take on the problem of propellers. At first, they reason that they need three—two horizontal and one vertical—but then they realize that they may need to tilt forward to pick something up, and sideways when maneuvering inside the submarine. They conclude that they’ll need five motors.
In divvying up the work, the students create both a sense of individual accomplishment as well as a communal motivation in that they are all working towards the same goal.
Fredi suggests that Oscar and Luis consider trolling motors, which are used for fishing boats. They are efficient and small enough to fit inside the PVC framework. Oscar dials a trolling motor company and speaks with Kevin Luebke. Luebke is quickly charmed by them and agrees to sell them five motors, which would normally be $500, at a 25% discounted price of $375. It’s a big part of the budget, but they need reliable movement.
Again, like De Tray, Swankoski, and Rodocker, Luebke is impressed by the students’ dedication to their work and the fact that they are able to transcend stereotypes and a lack of resources in order to compete in the MATE competition.
Oscar and Luis then push around a piece of wood in a sink to figure out the ideal placement. They discover that it is easier to turn the wood with propellers placed at 45-degree angles rather than simply directly from behind: essentially discovering the principles of torque.
Like Lorenzo with the balloon, Oscar and Luis take Fredi’s advice in doing hands-on work in order to experiment and learn more about the best motor placements for their robot.
Oscar and Luis find one final piece: a plastic briefcase that claims to be waterproof up to fifty feet to hold their battery. They buy the case at a discounted price of $120, drill a hole in the side for the wires, plug it, and submerge it in one of the classroom’s big sinks. It is able to protect the battery.
Even though the battery works the first time they test it, it eventually becomes an issue later. Still, the fact that they are able to think on the fly in order to save the battery proves that in addition to the knowledge and resources they have accumulated, these students also have the smarts to win.
The PVC pipe that they have bought needs to be cut, and so the team buys a pipe cutter. Cristian, Lorenzo, and Oscar discover that they’re not strong enough to cut the pipe. They have to cut eighty pieces. Everyone looks at Luis. He goes over to the cutter and feeds a piece of pipe into it. He then clamps down, cutting it in one smooth movement. Everyone looks at him in awe. It takes Luis two days to cut all eighty pieces. They connect the pieces and look back at their creation. It is slightly lopsided, but Fredi and Allan assure them it looks really good.
This anecdote highlights how each member of the team has different strengths. For Luis, his strength is literal, and he comes through in helping the team gain the necessary muscle to cut the pipe. In addition to that, it is clear that Luis has also been taking part in the team in other ways, demonstrating how it has made each of the students better on the whole.
A month after the students begin the ROV project, Dean Kamen releases his annual FIRST challenge. Cristian, Oscar, Lorenzo, and Luis are part of a larger team participating in the FIRST challenge at Carl Hayden. Kamen challenges students to build a machine that can move across a basketball court and retrieve balls. The goal is to place balls in a tall hamper, and the machines are all meant to complete the task at the same time in a free-for-all. At the end of the game, teams can earn bonus points if their robot can suspend itself on a pull-up bar.
As Davis previously described, Kamen feels that he has to find ways to make science compete with entertainment and sports in order for kids to get excited about it. And so, in designing this FIRST competition, he does exactly that—he uses kids’ love of basketball in order to get them excited about robotics.
Kamen’s organization sends teams a box of supplies to jump-start their building, including a robot controller. The students learn how to solder wires together and then start working to figure out how to build and program their robot. Lorenzo suggests that they build a robot that only does the final task. At first the others are skeptical, but they see that it’s a clever approach: doing a pull-up is the equivalent of collecting ten small balls.
Once again, Lorenzo proves to be the creative and unique thinker on the team. His idea to build a robot that only does a pull-up allows the team to focus its energy on that task rather than trying to complete something harder for fewer points.
The team constructs a frame and affixes four wheels to it. They then attach a clip and a rope to the top of a broom handle and connect it to a motor that moves the handle ten feet in the air. When the pole clips onto something, they activate a winch that drags the robot up into the air.
The team’s pull-up robot is again a lesson in minimalism, as they use the simplest materials that they can find—presumably things that are laying around the school.
The team arrives at the Arizona regionals on March 11, 2004. They have problems from the start. In the opening round, their robot’s chain slips off and falls onto the arena floor. When the round ends, they have to get the bot back to their “pit” and fix it in only forty-eight minutes. Seven team members work together to repair the chain.
The competition atmosphere not only provides a sense of adventure, but also allows the students to work quickly as a team to fix the chain, which will come in handy when they are piloting their ROV later in the book.
When the next round begins, the robot rolls straight to the pull-up bar. Lorenzo flips the switch to activate the broom. The robot clips on, and soon dangles off the ground. They end up winning three out of nine rounds and tying two: good enough for twenty-first place out of thirty-six teams. The judges are impressed, and award them the Engineering Inspiration Award. The award also qualifies them to travel to Atlanta for the national championship.
Even though the Carl Hayden team builds a robot that doesn’t really complete the main task, its ability to complete the harder task is rewarde—not only with an actual award, but also with the chance to travel across the country, showing that creativity and practical thinking is often the most crucial skill in a competition like this.
When Cristian tells his mother Leticia about the trip, she is not thrilled, worrying about what happened to the Wilson High kids at Niagara Falls. She tells him he can’t go. Cristian is furious. Fredi calls Leticia, arguing that competing at the championship is a good way to lay the groundwork for an engineering job. Leticia reluctantly gives her approval.
Again, Davis is sure to remind readers of the near-constant threat of deportation, even while going on a school trip. There is extra irony here in that while the competition should provide Cristian with the opportunity to get an engineering job, his immigration status prevents him throughout the book from doing so.
Five weeks after the regional event, the teens fly to Atlanta. When the competition begins, the Carl Hayden team’s robot freezes in the middle of an early match. Cristian suspects that the most likely issue is that the battery is not sitting right in the robot and asks another team to ram them. The other driver smashes into their robot, and surprisingly, it works. The robot starts rolling toward the pull-up bar. Lorenzo claps Cristian on the back and tells him that that was “frictastic.”
The competition in Atlanta provides the boys with a sense of adventure as they have to come up with quick and creative solutions on the fly. It also gives them practice working as a team for the MATE competition later on that year.
The team ends up placing thirty-ninth out of seventy-three—not bad for a new team, and far from last. Perhaps most importantly, they have a lot of fun. They pose for pictures in downtown Atlanta, and Oscar organizes the team in a human pyramid in the middle of a public square. He did this exercise in ROTC; now he’s building a new team.
The students’ success in the FIRST competition eases some of Fredi’s initial concerns. Now they have proven that they can compete in these kinds of competitions with other teams, and the fun they have while doing it spurs them to want to succeed more and more.
After Atlanta, the kids have ten weeks until the ROV championship. Their experience with FIRST proves invaluable. They use the controller from that robot in their ROV, soldering the wires to connect the propellers and cameras to the controller. They also had developed a short-hand language for certain tools and pieces. Lorenzo sees this shorthand as a new kind of gang slang and sees how the team has some of the same benefits as a gang. Hanging out with Luis, for example, Lorenzo finds that students are less likely to tease him.
Davis describes here how the FIRST competition not only gives them some of the necessary experience and equipment to move on to the MATE competition, but it also makes their team bond stronger. Here they are able to lift each other up and make each other’s lives better: Luis protects Lorenzo from bullies, and Lorenzo provides Luis with friendship.
Outside of robotics, Lorenzo loves watching his mother Laura cook, and he wants to learn more about cooking. Another school in West Phoenix offers a more robust cooking program, and Lorenzo tells Fredi that he’s thinking about transferring. Fredi suggests that he go to cooking school over the summer instead, worried that if Lorenzo leaves, he will lose the foundation of being a good student that he has built for himself. Lorenzo tells Fredi that the cooking school will cost four hundred dollars. A week later, Fredi and Allan offer to cover the cost. Lorenzo is amazed at their level of generosity.
Fredi and Allan’s generosity as mentors really knows no bounds here, especially considering they themselves are not paid very much. Fredi encourages Lorenzo’s other passions and wants to make sure that he is able to go to cooking school, but he also wants to make sure that this opportunity will not come at the expense of his other improvements in school (much like his participation in robotics club).
It is time to glue the PVC pipes in place, but once they do that, it will be difficult to make changes. They only have one chance. Oscar drills the team with practice runs of putting the robot together quickly, as the glue dries fast. They disassemble it and rebuild it repeatedly. Eventually, they’re able to do it in twenty minutes without mistakes.
Oscar again serves as a leader and motivator for the team, making sure that they are ready to put together their robot with skill and precision—taking a page from his old ROTC training.
The school year is coming to an end and Oscar and Luis are graduating just before the MATE competition in Santa Barbara. Each has to figure out what to do afterwards: Luis could keep working as a cook, but he’s been doing that for years. Oscar doesn’t have a green card and the best he can hope for is to turn a day laborer job into something steadier. Still, their accomplishments mean a lot to both families. It is a sign that the boys can achieve what the previous generation had not.
Even though the opportunities for Luis and, particularly, for Oscar once they have graduated are limited due to immigration policies, Davis still makes it clear that these boys are achieving the American Dream. They have worked hard for their graduation, and they have completed more education and received more opportunities than their parents.
With only a few weeks to go, the students prepare to glue the robot. They lay the pieces out on a table in the robotics closet and open the container of glue. It smells like heavy-duty paint thinner and immediately fills the closet with intoxicating fumes. They decide to take turns going into the closet because they are getting high from the fumes, racing to glue the pieces because the glue dries quickly. As they are gluing, Lorenzo says, “Damn, that’s stinky.”
The race to glue the robot together gives the boys an early sense of adventure as they dash in and out of the closet. They again prove the benefit of working together as a team as they take turns using the glue.
It takes two hours to put the whole structure together. At the end, they lower the waterproof briefcase into position, but there’s a problem: the pipes leading to the briefcase don’t line up. Oscar is frustrated with himself; they hadn’t tried to fit the briefcase when doing their dry runs. Everyone is disappointed. Cristian says that they have to start over.
This marks a bit of a turning point for the team. Oscar, who is normally optimistic, becomes frustrated because he views what happened as his own failure. Lorenzo subsequently takes up the mantle of motivator to show the team how they can fix the problem at hand, demonstrating how much they have learned from each other.
Lorenzo has an idea. They’re not off by much—they could bend the pipe using the electric heat gun. Lorenzo plugs it in and blasts the pipe, while Luis puts pressure on it. The PVC starts to bend, and Luis angles it into position. When Lorenzo turns the heat gun off, the PVC hardens into place exactly where it needs to be. Oscar compliments Lorenzo on the idea. Lorenzo says that their robot needs a name. Oscar remembers what Lorenzo said in the closet and suggests calling it Stinky.
Lorenzo again serves as the team’s creative problem solver, using the electric heat gun (which is normally used to dry paint) in order to bend the pipes. Dubbing the robot “Stinky” is also symbolic of their underdog status as a whole: it may not look like it belongs with the other robots, but it is precisely what makes Stinky unique that allows the robot to win.
The students take Stinky to a nearby scuba facility called Scuba Sciences, thanking the woman who works there, Tina Lowe, for letting them use the pool. She tells them it’s not a problem and marvels at the unusual crew filing into her facility: Cristian, Luis, Lorenzo, Oscar, Fredi, Allan, and Michael Hanck, who is there to help pilot the robot.
In noting Lowe’s reaction to the “unusual crew,” Davis again provides a reminder that these kids have already accomplished something quite remarkable for students of their background (or of any background) in even assembling an ROV.
It takes them an hour to lay out their gear. They have scavenged two battered monitors and four video game joysticks. When they plug everything in, the two monitors light up and Stinky starts coming to life. Cristian is in charge of the robot’s up and down movements, while Michael is in charge of moving it left, right, forward, and backward.
While teams like MIT presumably would have state of the art equipment with their $10,000 grant to monitor their machine, the students make do—and win—with scavenged monitors and video game pieces.
The team hasn’t seen much of Michael lately. He struggled in school and enrolled in summer classes. Fredi and Allan told him that if he couldn’t get his grades above a B average, he couldn’t be on the team. Lorenzo mans the sensor controls: the claw, the cameras, and the water-sampling pump.
While Lorenzo had been inspired and motivated by Fredi’s ultimatum, Michael has had a more difficult time. This demonstrates that success doesn’t come easy to any of these students: they all have to work extremely hard.
Luis sets Stinky in the water, but it floats too well. The team removes some extra pipes that they have attached so that it will float until it becomes neutrally buoyant. But it still tilts forward too much—they need something to keep its nose up. Lorenzo pulls an empty bottle of sunscreen out of a nearby trash can. They tie it to the front of the robot and it hovers perfectly upright.
Rather than focusing on the aesthetic appeal of the robot, Lorenzo continues to come up with quick and practical solutions in order to make sure that their robot functions in the best possible way.
The students practice driving Stinky through a hula hoop, but it’s harder to get it back out because the tether is threaded through the hoop. Cristian and Michael try to drive it back, but Stinky begins to spin erratically before slamming into the pool wall. Cristian explains that it’s hard to see on the monitor. Fredi warns them to be careful: if they hit it too hard, they’ll crack the PVC.
The difficulty that the students’ initially face not only reinforces the difficulty of the tasks ahead, but also how much they will be thrown for a loop when Michael ends up not being able to go to the competition, and they have to work quickly to get Oscar up to speed on controlling the robot.
Cristian and Michael try piloting the robot through the hoop again, but it veers off a second time and collides with the wall. Stinky floats to the surface, and its electronics stop responding. Oscar tries to put a positive spin on the situation, saying that once they figure out how to drive it, they’ll be the fastest team in the competition.
Oscar again fulfills his role as the team’s leader, taking a page from Fredi and trying to boost their confidence about the things that the ROV is already able to do, rather than focusing on what isn’t working. This becomes crucial at the competition.
Back in the robotics closet, Cristian reexamines every connection in the briefcase. Some of the cables have been damaged, causing the robot to behave erratically. They replace the wires, and the joysticks seem to work fine. Cristian and Allan also reprogram the software so that it doesn’t accelerate as quickly.
Cristian also continues to play his part as the brains of the operation, putting his early curiosity about the internal workings of technology in order to fix the robot’s cables and programming.
Lorenzo, meanwhile, tries to fix some of the robot’s aesthetics. The blue glue has dripped onto the pipe, leaving blue streaks across the white frame. He decides to solve two problems at once. He applies red paint to any section that Luis shouldn’t grab onto or lift from, like the tubes leading into the briefcase; he paints the corners yellow so that they can see its outline better in the water; and he colors the rest blue. He tells Luis to grab only the blue parts.
Lorenzo, like Cristian, works to make sure that the robot can be as functional as possible, and solving two problems at once seems to be his specialty as he finds creative ways to make the robot both look nicer and to help Luis know the safest places to grab the robot.
A week later, they return to Scuba Sciences, with the competition one week away. Their second session is much more successful. Stinky steers clear of the walls and responds better to the joysticks. It also takes accurate depth measurements, retrieves a piece of pipe, and deploys the tape measurer. Oscar makes a list of tasks and ranks them based on importance and feasibility. At the bottom of the list is retrieving the liquid sample, the task they are having the most difficulty with.
As they practice in the pool at Scuba Sciences, Davis shows how their progress has accumulated over time. Somehow, a team that didn’t even know what an ROV was nine months earlier is now able to complete most of the tasks in the competition. It demonstrates how they may still be underdogs, but certainly they will be underestimated by their competitors.
The team starts to get more hopeful about their chances. But the day before their departure, Fredi and Allan announce that Michael will not be joining them, since he hasn’t gotten his grades up in summer school. The team has less than twenty-four hours until their departure, and they have just lost one of their drivers. The team decides that Oscar has to be the other driver, as Lorenzo is operating the sensors and Luis is needed by the edge of the pool to manage the tether and lift the robot.
Losing Michael just before the competition is a tough blow, but it is a fair consequence of Michael’s inability to get his grades up, as Fredi and Allan had warned. If it did not seem like they would follow through on their threats, Lorenzo and the rest of the boys would not have been nearly as motivated to be good students.
Fredi calls Lowe and asks if the pool is available that day. She tells them that she can give them as much time as she can between classes. They race over and start practicing, given forty-five minutes between two classes. Oscar starts to try, but quickly crashes into a wall. He puts too much force on the joystick and Stinky nearly somersaults. They then just try to cruise around, and Oscar starts to get the hang of it—but Lowe tells them that that’s all the time she can give them.
Michael’s absence deals the underdogs another setback. Oscar has a learning curve to overcome in controlling the robot, but the friendship that the boys have developed also makes it easier for them to work as a team, and Oscar is eventually able to synchronize his movements with Cristian’s steering.
On Thursday, June 24, 2004, the team assembles at 4:00 a.m. at Carl Hayden to drive to Santa Barbara. Lorenzo jogs up last, assuring everyone that he’s coming and on time. They start hauling everything they need into the car and pile into the truck. They take two cars and communicate via radio between them, quizzing each other for their engineering presentation, making sure that anyone can answer any question that could be asked of them—and one of them just happens to be about the PWM.
The car ride to Santa Barbara is another demonstration of how the boys’ friendship contributes to their success as a team. They get excited using the ham radios to talk to each other, and eventually it turns into a quizzing game. One of their questions ends up being the question that Lisa Spence asks Luis—which he may not have been able to answer had it not been for their car quizzes.
When they cross the border to California, Lorenzo sees laborers picking watermelons in fields and falls silent. The realtor helped pay off their mortgage payments in exchange for the deed to the property. Lorenzo worries that he could come back home to find out he is homeless. This four-day trip could be his last chance to experience what it might be like to have a job other than manual labor.
Davis foreshadows the fact that even with success in the competition, Lorenzo would have a hard time finding a job in engineering or a science-related field, due to America’s immigration policies. In the final chapter, Davis will elaborate on how he feels the potential of these boys has been squandered.