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Publish Date: 2/20/2007

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From left: Santiago Arredondo of Casa de la Esperanza, Paul Hendershott of Ball Aerospace and Javier Perez of Casa de la Esperanza work together on their robot for the FIRST Robotics Colorado Regional Competition. Times-Call/Jamie Haverkamp

Casa MESA
Robots bring star students to regional competition

 LONGMONT — Some high school students involved with the St. Vrain Valley MESA program are building a robot while breaking stereotypes about Hispanic youth.

The dozen students are participants in MESA — the Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement program — through Casa de la Esperanza.

Owned and operated by the Boulder County Housing Authority, Casa de la Esperanza is a nonprofit housing site for migrant families. Its resident program is tailored to meet the needs of first-generation Mexican immigrant families in the community.

The St. Vrain Valley School District has 65 MESA programs in elementary, middle and high schools. MESA serves all students but has a particular focus on students from groups that are historically underrepresented in science and engineering.

Casa has its own MESA program under advisers Carlota Loya Hernández and Michael Lozano. The team is working with mentors — such as college students from the University of Colorado and professional engineers from IBM, Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace — to enter a robot into the the FIRST Robotics Colorado Regional Competition at the University of Denver from March 29 to 31.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded by inventor Dean Kamen to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people. The nonprofit designs accessible programs to build self-confidence, knowledge and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math.

While other MESA teams from high schools such as Silver Creek and Niwot also are working with mentors to compete in the FIRST Robotics competition, the Casa team is the first districtwide team from the MESA program to compete in the regional contest, said Karen Hunter, coordinator for St. Vrain Valley MESA program. All the Casa MESA students are from Niwot High School, but Hunter said the program plans to invite any interested student to join their team for next year’s robotics contest.

“It’s more about building relationships than building robots,” Hunter said.

FIRST Robotics teams have six weeks to design and build a robot from a standard kit of parts to compete at regional events. The competitions are high-tech spectator sporting events, and the teams earn points as their robots compete against others.

“Most of these kids are from immigrant families who are poor or work in agriculture,” Lozano said. “Without the help of the mentors, they wouldn’t be exposed to this kind of competition.”

He added that many of the Casa MESA team students are university-bound, so their experiences with adults in math- and science-based fields could introduce them to future career choices.

“One of the goals of MESA,” Hunter said “is to allow opportunities for students to be academically prepared so they can choose any field they want at a university.”

Maria Madera, a main security analyst for IBM and a mentor for the Casa team, serves as a project manager, ensuring the team meets deadlines and budgets.

“I want these kids to learn and to see they have possibility in this country,” Madera said, adding that volunteerism is a big part of her company’s community commitment.

Freshman Santiago Arredondo, 14, said that before the competition, he “didn’t even really know what a robot was or how it worked.”

On Thursday night, he was helping the mentors build an emergency light to attach to the arm of their robot.

“Everybody is participating,” he said, “and even if we don’t win, we should be happy with how we do.”

Daniela Villarreal, 17, is a senior who admitted to at first balking at what seemed like the Herculean task of building a robot.

“But then I thought, well, we have nothing to lose,” she said. “We just want to be role models so the future generations can look up to us and do this (competition) every year.”

Mentor Mark Dotterweich, an engineer program manager at Lockheed, said the robotics competition gives these students hands-on experience with concepts such as “Why do we care about gear ratios?” and “Why do we need more torque?”

“It’s important for them to see that the world is really wide open if they take the opportunities that come to them,” he said. “And they are taking them. They are showing up every night and getting involved.”

Melanie M. Sidwell can be reached at 303-684-5274, or by e-mail at msidwell@times-call.com.

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