In Philly schools, a robotics reboot

Christian Perez, who hopes to build a robotics team at Edison High, and his coach is Barbara Bess-Pashak.

The RoboLancers, Central High School's acclaimed robotics team, want to win. They have traveled to world championships before, and they'd like to return.

Still, they are encouraging competition. They are even creating it.

To that end, the team has landed tens of thousands of dollars in grants to relaunch robotics programs - and, in some cases, start new ones - at schools around the city.

Enter the team's newly formed Central Robotics Coalition, which has already attracted $25,000 in funding for this year and up to $50,000 more in total over the next two years from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

The coalition has already restarted robotics teams at six Philadelphia School District schools, and hopes to raise more money and double the current number of teams.

To date, the Workshop, Edison, Frankford, Girls', Lincoln, and Parkway Center City all got $3,000 in seed money to field teams. Each team will also be paired with mentors to aid the teens in their robotics challenges.

"Our experience at Central is the richest when we have a whole community of robotics teams around us to work with," said Michael Johnson, a science teacher and the head coach of what has grown into the largest student group at Central, with 100 participants. "We want to open up new opportunities elsewhere. We're talking about an ecosystem."

A few years back, Philadelphia boasted a robust robotics community, with more than 20 teams funded in large part by a federal grant.

But that funding dried up over the last two years, causing about a dozen teams to fold.

That troubled Johnson, who has coached the RoboLancers for two years. At the end of the last school term, his students mobilized.

The team has long provided support - financial and expertise - to other teams, but members wanted to do more, said Sabrina Dormer, a Central senior and the RoboLancers' president.

"Now, the coalition will magnify those efforts by bringing more money, mentors, and support than we could have provided alone," Dormer said.

The coalition is on the hunt for additional pledges to max out the Neubauer matching grant. And it's looking for mentors - college students and industry professionals - with experience in programming, development, communications, mechanical design, and building, to aid the teams.

The goal is to build sustainable teams, to equip students with skills for a wide variety of careers, and to give them opportunities in engineering and beyond.

That means the world to Barbara Bess-Pashak, coach of the fledgling Robo Owls of Edison High. Two years ago, the Robo Owls went to the state championships at Millersville University, and losing the team last year was a big letdown.

Having a program like robotics at a neighborhood high school means a great deal, she said.

The team so far consists of one enthusiastic member, though Bess-Pashak is planning to lure more with free snacks and signs around the North Philadelphia school.

Christian Perez, the lone Robo Owl to date, has already had his life transformed by robotics, he said. He was still perfecting his English when he came to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico in 2012. Bess-Pashak, on a whim, asked him if he'd like to join the team after he helped her carry heavy boxes of robotics equipment into her classroom.

"I like projects, but I never thought I was good at engineering," said Perez, 18. "I didn't know I had it in me."

Shortly after Bess-Pashak recruited him in his freshman year, a judge at a robotics scrimmage nodded at Perez and acknowledged his promise. How many years had he been at it? the judge asked.

"It was six days," Bess-Pashak said.

Perez knew he was good with his hands. But he thought he would train as an auto mechanic, like his father. Now, he's set on college and a job as a mechanical engineer.

And as for building up the team? He's not worried.

"If I can get a student in here and get them working on gears, putting things together," Perez said, "they'll love it."

kgraham@phillynews.com 215-854-5146 @newskag www.philly.com/schoolfiles

For more information, go to http://roboticscoalition.org