When I arrived, a sign at the entrance to Carl Hayden Community High School proclaimed, “The Pride’s on the Inside.” I figured the administration was saying that because there wasn’t a lot to be proud about on the outside: The neighborhood was blasted with graffiti and trash. Seventy-one percent of students were below the poverty line, and few even considered college.
I found the robotics team crammed into a converted closet in the science building. They were an odd assortment of kids: Lorenzo Santillan was an ex-gang member, Oscar Vazquez was the school’s JROTC cadet of the year, Luis Arranda was a hulking giant of a kid who said little, and Cristian Arcega was a skinny brainiac. They thought the competition might be a path to a better future, but joining a robotics team in this environment sounded crazy, especially when they’d be competing against a team from MIT sponsored by Exxon-Mobil. (Their teachers assumed they would lose regardless so entered them in the expert division against college students.)
Yet all four possessed something I recognized from the backwards-running community: They didn’t care what other people thought. The Carl Hayden kids had been told they would never amount to much, so what did it matter if they tried something unusual?
Each student brought unique experiences to the team. Lorenzo repaired cars in his driveway and, out of necessity, had developed a creative approach to engineering. Cristian was a self-taught mathematician and scientist who could solve challenging technical problems. Oscar was a born leader. And Luis was big enough to pick up the heavy robot.
Still, it was hard to imagine how it would work out. The competition involved exploring a sunken mock-up of a submarine, taking fluid samples, and performing other complex underwater tasks. These kids lived in the desert—their school didn’t even have a pool. They had scant funds and little formal robotics training. Their robot was made of a milk jug, zip ties, PVC pipe, and donated parts. The team dubbed it “Stinky” because it reeked when they glued it together.
But Stinky’s looks masked the bot’s surprisingly robust capabilities. Since they didn’t have the resources to solve problems with expensive technology, the kids from Phoenix came up with innovative solutions. While other teams employed complex fluid sampling tools, Lorenzo used a small pump attached to a cheap balloon. They housed their electronics in a plastic briefcase, and when the case sprung a leak they filled it with tampons. They outfitted the PVC frame with an array of cameras, a pincer, a laser range finder, and an acoustic microphone. It might not have been pretty, but it was an engineering marvel.
To everyone’s surprise (including their own), the Carl Hayden team sped through an impressive series of underwater assignments during the competition. At one point, the big-budget robot from engineering powerhouse MIT ran into trouble, but the scrappy Carl Hayden bot was able to complete the task. When it came time for the engineering review in front of a panel of robotics experts, they nailed every question.