Check out this interview that VoyageLA did with our FIRST Robotics Team from Watts, CA! Thank you to VoyageLA for highlighting our students’ stories.
Today we’d like to introduce you to First Robotics Team 6904: TeraWatts.
So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
We are a third-year FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics team. Our team was founded in 2017 by a high school chemistry teacher at Animo College Preparatory Academy (ACPA), Fatima Iqbal-Zubair. Our rookie season in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) was the 2018 season.
As an FRC team, we are tasked with building a robot that successfully works in an alliance with two other robots under the specifications of the season’s game. We have about six weeks to design, build and test a robot. During the off-season, we work to raise money for our robot, complete outreach goals, and team building activities. Throughout the year, we have guidance from our mentors, which include teachers, community members, and engineers.
Our particular team, the TeraWatts, was founded because our founder wanted to use it as an agent of change in our community. The community of Watts is a historically underserved minority community. Watts is still home to rivaling gangs and has a high rate of violence. The community of Watts is a historically underserved minority community. Only 2.9% of residents have a four years college degree. Our school consists of 100% black and Latino/a students. 97 % of students are under the poverty line and many live in government housing. 96% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Students from this community have had an inequitable education for most of their lives, and are rarely given opportunities to explore their passions, especially explorations in STEAM. When polled, at least 15% of our school community has shown interest in STEAM fields, but before our FIRST program, there has been no real outlet for these students to explore their passion. Who knows how many more would develop an interest if given more access to STEAM programs such as FIRST? The impact that a new generation of STEAM, college educated scholars could have on this community is immeasurable and limitless.
Most students in Watts have not had access to a pre-K education. There is definitely STEAM inequity in this community – there are not enough programs for students to be free to explore and participate in STEAM activities. A large part of this is that it is not easy to find an educator or a mentor who is highly dedicated and passionate to promoting STEAM and who will ensure its longevity and continued success in the community.
This issue has definitely become a priority for community leaders. When only 3% of residents have college degrees, and when 80% of the new jobs to be created in the next decade will require STEM skills, It is easy to feel a sense of urgency in educating a generation to meet this demand, which at the same time will improve all residents of the community. Marquam – a middle school in Watts – has addressed this by creating a school wide Robotics program, where a small group of students have participated in and been successful in STEAM-related competitions. College Track Watts is a non-profit organization that works with our high school – through grants they are able to provide students in our school with STEAM-related opportunities. In fact, they sponsor our current FRC team – the TeraWatts.
Last, but not least, the administration of our school has been highly supportive in meeting the urgent need for STEAM-related opportunities for students. They have encouraged us to not think small, but to “Think Big.” Several church and community leaders have also spoken at our school retreat to voice their support for STEAM-related efforts in their community.
The TeraWatts were also proud to be finalists in the FIRST parody contest (listen to our submission here). We have also been in various press features. These honors have really allowed for coalition building as it has helped make our mission and message loud and clear in the community of Watts and throughout the world. The publicity gained by the video has guaranteed the commitment of organizations as key stakeholders of our team because they see the hard work put in by our FIRST Robotics team.
Team TeraWatts is currently mentored by Team 4201: the Vitruvian Bots. This partnership was created because the lead mentor of the TeraWatts is married to the lead mentor of the Vitruvian Bots. This provides close collaboration that is allowing the TeraWatts to be successful. Additionally, the lead mentor of the Vitruvian Bots is on the Los Angeles Planning community for FIRST, so connection to this type of oversight is helping our team and community as well. We have solidified four consistent, outside mentors for our team, mostly employees from Raytheon.
During our team’s existence, we have worked on several outreach activities. One specific outreach event that we supported was a two weeks summer Robotics program for elementary school students at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary school in Watts. Team 6904 already possessed some of the required materials to start this summer program, and Team 4201 donated the rest.
Today, our team’s foundations have been established. Our current goal is to embed an appreciation for STEAM within our community, as well as helping others hone their skills in their particular area of interest. In this way, we are increasing access for students by increasing resources otherwise unavailable to them in our underserved community. We hope to continue developing our members as individuals, leaders, and collaborators in order to change the dynamics of our low-income community. Specifically, we hope to achieve funds/grants so we can fulfill our plan of purchasing sustainable tools and materials for our teams, we plan on continuing our engagement with our community of Watts by mentoring younger members in our community through FLL and continuing to promote STEAM education.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Our team has faced many challenges in fulfilling its mission and goals. When our team was founded, we were not able to have permanent spaces. In order to effectively and comfortably build a robot, a FIRST team requires a consistent, large working space where we can house tools, store materials, and have space to work. We didn’t always have that. When the TeraWatts was first founded, our school provided us with a classroom to temporarily use. We shared this room with the PE teacher. We had shelves to store our materials and supplies, as well as access to a storage closet that we locked up. This room was connected to a stage area in our school’s auditorium, which is about half the size of a typical FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) field. We used this stage for testing our robot. This year, however, due to scheduling conflicts with students and the school administration’s weekends, we were not able to work in the auditorium. We spoke to two of our partners, College Track Watts and the i.am.angel Foundation. Together, we found a solution to this: we could work at the end of one of the hallways of the College Track Watts building. While not ideal, this new accommodation worked with our members’ schedules and gave us access to more resources, like WiFi and laptops.
Another challenge we faced this year was not having access to tools and machines. Because we were working out of College Track’s hallway, we had to be mindful of the noise our power tools made. On a few occasions, we were locked out of the storage rooms where we kept our power tools. The largest challenge we faced was not having some of the tools we needed. For instance, our team only owns four computers. We borrow Mac books and Chrome books from College Track on weekends, but during the school week, we don’t have guaranteed access to these since other students in the program also borrow them. Not having enough computers for everyone on the team makes it difficult to learn to code and CAD. In addition, this past October, our team participated in an off-season competition called Beach Blitz. On the day of the competition, the van where we had stored our tools and robot was broken into. While we managed to do well at the competition (we won Most Improved Robot and were alliance captains during quarterfinals), we struggled to replace the tools that were stolen when we got back to school. This, coupled with increased safety measures that limited our team’s building schedule during the competition season, meant that we would not be able to complete our robot in time for the 2020 Los Angeles Regional. Thankfully, Team 4201: the Vitruvian Bots demonstrated gracious professionalism and let us work in their space during the final weeks of the build season. They offered their shop, tools, mentors, time and support. The Vitruvian Bots have been mentoring our team since our founding.
We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
We are Team 6904: the TeraWatts. In our community of Watts, only 3% have a college degree, and less than 50% have a high school degree. Our goal is to ensure that we use FIRST in our community as an avenue to ensure that more students are inspired to not only go to college but to complete college as well. This latter part of our goal was added this year because we realized that to increase equity in our community, we need more students in our community to have a pathway to college and return to their community with a 4-year college degree in hand.
As a third-year robotics team, our team’s foundational structure is mostly established. In our low-income community, we have seen how the funding we have applied to in our past two years has helped us not only maintain our team, but even succeed – we made playoffs in competitive regional, won the Judge’s Award twice, and were finalists and won Most Improved Robot at off-season events. The biggest success we have had, however, is that 100% of our members are attending a 4-year college, with most majoring in STEM majors.
We want to continue providing low-income students of color even more equity through FIRST. However, this means that we have to work each year to expand our outreach efforts not only within our school but also in schools outside our community and even in other parts of the state, where we know many FIRST teams with similar demographics to ours fail due to accessibility to financial and other resources.
Our team is broken up into different sub teams: Business, Manufacturing, Controls (Programming and Wiring), Community Outreach, and Design. Team leaders are required to apply for their desired position, with priority given to seniors. The team advisor and mentors discuss the nominees and select the leaders for each subteam. Leaders are responsible for their sub team’s members, as well as decisions for the team’s footsteps. Mentors and team leaders collaborate when needed: future planning, necessities, team issues, etc. This year, to further engage with the community, we also included a Community Outreach lead. Being intentional about working with our community to promote STEAM education is important to the team.
So, what’s next? Any big plans?
Our team has been showcased on a variety of platforms: FIRST Song Parody, ABC7 News, USC Intersections, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and Twitch. We were the first rookie team to be finalists at the FIRST Parody competition and finished in 5th place – after the parody competition, many FIRST teams, students and mentors who didn’t know about Watts learned about our great community and what we were doing with FIRST to change the narrative. Judges at our first regional exclaimed that we are the first team they know of to be featured on the news. The reason for our rising publicity is the fact that our members are composed of low-income students of color from an underserved community plagued with negative stereotypes. Only 30% of Watts residents hold a high school diploma and only a mere 3% hold a college degree. As we finished our rookie year, we said our goodbyes to our beloved seniors. We are proud to say that they are all attending respected universities and 80% are majoring in STEAM. Since then, our team has continued to grow and expand in our competition capabilities and outreach. Through the means of our team, we are changing the narrative of our so-called “bad” community.