Lowell High’s elite robotics team is racing to finish their robot. Will they be able to reach a high-stakes competition?

The half-dozen teenagers surround the little robot named Sparrow, their hands immersed in a variety of metals, wires and computer components as they handle wire strippers, screwdrivers and zip ties with expressions of utter concentration.

They have about 24 hours to make sure Sparrow can pick up giant tennis balls off the ground and shoot them 8 feet into the air before proving that he can get up off the ground to hang from a metal bar and then, like a kid on bars monkey, swing to a higher one.

Sparrow is not currently moving. It’s a “camera problem,” says one student, pointing to a cable he’s holding between his fingers as he explains in technical language what that means.

For the first time in two years, these students from Lowell High School in San Francisco will face off in person against students from across California and other countries in the First Silicon Valley Regional Robotics Competition on Saturday and Sunday.

It is, according to the organizers, a “university sport for the mind”, which combines “the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology”.

The program is one of countless efforts launched over the past two decades to attract young people to fields needed for the 21st century economy. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) became the battle cry of education, with US lawmakers and businesses pouring money into K-12 recruiting efforts.

To some extent, the investment is working.

For many of the members of the Lowell Robotics Club and thousands like them in the Bay Area and the US, building a robot and being on the robotics team can be frustrating, fun and challenging. It can also have a huge influence on who they become as adults, with many opting for STEM careers and college degrees as a result.

For companies looking to attract future science and technology workers, encouraging children to build an award-winning robot is arguably one of the best baits. And for those hoping to create a generation of problem-solving adults undeterred by mishaps, a stubborn robot with a camera problem is probably the solution, too.

Lowell robotics coach Bryan Cooley, a physics professor, points to former club members who now work at Space X and Tesla, among other high-tech places.

He also points out that building the robot is only part of the experience. Students have to give presentations, raise money, and participate in community events demonstrating the robot, as well as public relations efforts.

“A year of teaching physics can’t do that,” says Cooley.

In the hallway of Lowell’s science building, members of the robotics team alternate between being nervous, worried and confident.

“I really feel like this is one of the best robots we’ve ever built,” says Ivy Mahncke, a junior and co-president of the school’s robotics club.

That said, “we’re in Silicon Valley,” he said, adding that they’re up against the best teams, who are advised by NASA and the tech company’s engineers. “We are underdogs.”

An earlier design of Sparrow’s climbing mechanisms was scrapped because it wasn’t “cool enough,” so they redesigned it, says sophomore Lucas Rosenthal-Jones. Is it cool enough now?

“If it works, it is,” he says.

This group, like hundreds of high school robotics teams across the country, has been preparing for the competition for months, designing, building, and testing their robot after school until 9 p.m. most nights and weekends. In the meantime, they sleep, eat, attend classes, and do homework, which is sometimes turned in late because Sparrow is stubborn.

The goal is to reach the national championship, which will take place later this month in Houston. The Lowell team has been five times in a dozen years and believes Sparrow has the wings to get there in 2022.

Many of the students in the robotics club at Lowell, a historically rigorous and competitive academic high school, said they plan to pursue a STEM major in college, including various fields of engineering, medicine or economics.

Cole Lewis of the Lowell High School Robotics Club joins other team members on April 6 as they prepare the team's competition robot,

Cole Lewis of the Lowell High School Robotics Club joins other team members on April 6 as they prepare the team’s competition robot, “Sparrow,” for its upcoming competition.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

The recruiting effort has worked to some extent, but gaps remain in terms of supply and demand, said Susan Hackwood, executive director of the California Science and Technology Council.

Silicon Valley and the rest of California continue to import top talent to fill science and technology jobs. And there remains a need to recruit women and people of color into STEM fields, experts said.

“There is still a huge, huge, huge gap in opportunities and access to robotics, to STEM,” said Lisa Andrews, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, which works to increase that kind of access.

It should start with programs like clubs and competitions, where black and brown students remain relatively rare, he said, even in Lowell.

Hackwood said he thinks the pandemic could help reframe STEM education toward social justice and other emerging needs, which could excite a broader range of students. She already sees that trend among her own science and technology college students.

“Students no longer ask, ‘How am I going to get a good-paying job?’” said Hackwood, a professor of electrical engineering. “I have a tremendous number of students who use STEM knowledge to help legislators make the right decisions.”

At the same time, Amit Roy Chowdhury, a robotics professor at UC Riverside, said recruiting students into STEM isn’t necessarily the problem. He keeps them there.

Robotics and other STEM departments lose 50% of students admitted to these majors due to the first high-level math and computer programming courses required to earn a degree.

What robotics clubs “generate is interest in knowing more about these topics,” Chowdhury said. “They don’t convey the challenges that students will face if they want to be roboticists.”

Back in the Lowell hallway, the students are still focused on how to make Sparrow work.

They worry that so many things could go wrong with their robot. Pieces break and humans are fallible. There was a year during a competition, they said, when someone forgot to connect the joysticks to the computer, leaving their robot motionless on the competition floor for 90 seconds before they knew it.

“Anything that could go wrong goes wrong and then you fix it,” Rosenthal-Jones says, shrugging. “You can use robotics as a metaphor for life.”

Jill Tucker is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker

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