For Carl Hayden robotics team, beating immigration is tougher than beating the competition
Arizona Republic
Jul 31, 2008

by Richard Ruelas

Stinky has seen better days. The underwater robot that propelled four Carl Hayden High School students into the national spotlight after it defeated the creations of technical colleges in a national competition is probably not seaworthy anymore.

Four years removed from its victory, the painted PVC-pipe robot looks outdated compared with the creations that have come from the high-school students since.

"It's so primitive," said Oscar Vazquez, one of Stinky's creators, looking over the contraption recently.

Four years ago, Stinky and its four student handlers proved themselves able to go toe-to-toe with the top engineering students in the country. The kids from the high school just off the freeway in west Phoenix beat egghead college students from prestigious places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The underdog victory spurred people around the globe to send donations to help send the students to college. Actress Salma Hayek expressed interest in turning the students' story into a movie.

The four members of the original robotics team have scattered since graduation. But arranging a reunion is fairly easy. All four members, as well as the robot, still reside in Phoenix, still tethered to the city, in part, by their immigration status. All four entered the U.S. illegally as preteens.

All have pursued higher education, but not necessarily in science and technology.

Both Vazquez and Cristian Arcega enrolled in Arizona State University's engineering program. Arcega left after a year, in part, he said, because "all the immigration issues were coming up."

Vazquez will be a senior this year. Upon graduation, he may head to Canada to put his education to use.

"Canada's just like the U.S., just different money," he said.

Luis Aranda and Lorenzo Santillan both want to become cooks and caterers. Aranda went to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute but is currently working as a carpenter. He credits the robotics program for giving him focus in high school.

"I wasn't doing much," he said. "I was pretty much hanging out most of the time."

Santillan attends Phoenix College. He said one advantage to starting his own catering company is that he wouldn't have to worry about showing identification to a potential employer.

Their coaches, Allan Cameron and Faridodin Lajvardi whom everyone calls "Fredi," continue to lead teams of robot scientists at Carl Hayden, making it one of the coolest clubs on campus and turning the school into a factory that spits out engineering students.

Cameron, who retired from the high school, but is still involved in the robot club, said at least a dozen kids have gone to Arizona State University's engineering program out of Carl Hayden since 2006 and are doing well.

"When half the class drops out, it's not our kids," he said.

Stinky was followed by robots named Smokey, Ipski Pipski and Otis. Some of those robots were created with parts from Stinky. But that isn't being allowed anymore. Stinky is no longer a relic that can be picked for scrap. It's a model that needs to be preserved for reference when it comes time to shoot the movie.

Stinky does get toted around by Cameron and Lajvardi on the speeches they occasionally give to groups who want to hear the story about the little team that could. Sometimes it's to schools wanting to start a robotics program or to meetings of educators. Sometimes it's to civic groups, where the inspirational speech comes with a pitch for sponsor dollars to buy equipment the Carl Hayden robotics club.

Depending on the group, the two decide when and how much to emphasize the part about how the four students who won the national championship in 2004 were in the country illegally. And that many of the students currently in the club are in the same boat.

"I can say half," Cameron says, when asked how many robotics club members are here illegally. "But I can't say which half."

Lajvardi tells the audience what he says to keep his undocumented students motivated: "Look, you can get deported tomorrow. Do you want to get deported as a garbage collector? Or deported as a doctor?"

Cameron puts it a little more bluntly, telling students how much their education will be valued.

"There will be people all over the world who will have you," he says. "The U.S. is too stupid to keep you."

Students' choice

The two teachers started a robotics team in 2001, competing in land-based competitions with mediocre success. In 2004, Lajvardi offered his marine-science class a deal. They could learn from a textbook or build a robot to compete in the underwater competition being held in Santa Barbara, Calif., that summer. The six, including the four who would go on to win the competition, voted for the robot.

Santillan said he initially didn't have much interest in marine science but chose it as a sophomore elective because "it was the next best thing compared to other things that didn't get my attention."

He was able to throw himself into the robot project because he found himself with some free time. His best friend's mother had been arrested and deported, and the friend had decided to go back to Mexico with her.

"I had nothing to do. I felt like a loser," Santillan said. If not for the robot club, "I would have probably just dropped out of high school."

The team worked on Stinky - named for the excess glue holding it together - past the school year and into the summer. Vasquez said he never told his parents he was spending time after school and during the summer break trying to perfect an underwater robot.

"I didn't really tell them anything until toward the end where we had to ask them for permission to go to California," he said.

The team loaded Stinky into a van and drove it to the MATE underwater robot competition in California. Cameron and Lajvardi had entered the team in the competition against colleges rather than the one designed for high schools, figuring it was best to lose in the most spectacular fashion possible.

"Let's go the first year, see what it's like," he remembered thinking. "We'll get our butts kicked. We'll take notes. And we'll come back next year."

But the group ended up with a design choice that was unique in the competition. They placed the battery power supply onboard the underwater robot. Most other teams kept the battery safely on dry land.

The move was initially made to add weight to the robot, but it ended up having the advantage of creating a more mobile robot. Signals were sent to it through a skinny telephone wire rather than a bulky power cable.

When Carl Hayden was announced as the winner, Lajvardi said, "I literally don't remember walking up to the stage."

The team headed to the beach to celebrate, figuring they could hoot and holler all they wanted without rubbing their victory in anyone's face.

Lajvardi called his wife to tell her about the victory. She didn't believe him.

No response

Lajvardi also sent some e-mails to newspapers and TV stations. He half expected that their van would be met in the city like they were returning heroes. Instead there was silence. "Nothing. Nothing," Cameron said.

A supporter of the team sent an e-mail about the victory to a friend who did freelance work for Wired magazine. That story, titled "La Vida Robot," ran in April 2005 and opened up the floodgates of support.

Carl Hayden's Falcon Robotics team returned to the underwater robot competition in 2005 and 2006. Arcega and Santillan, from the 2004 champion team, were on those teams as well, along with a rotating band of students. The team came in third in 2005 and second in 2006. Both times, it beat MIT.

The next year, the competition moved to Canada. Lajvardi and Cameron think it was done deliberately to get the team of immigrant high-school kids out of the competition. The students were wary of the trip, remembering the plight of the "Wilson Four," a group of illegal-immigrant students from Wilson High School in Phoenix who were detained while on a school field trip to see Niagara Falls.

Jill Zande, who coordinates the robot competition for the Marine Advanced Technology Education center, said Carl Hayden was not intentionally frozen out. The competition was held in Canada because a prestigious university offered to host it. "Why would it keep the team out?" she said, adding that it was her understanding that the teachers did not know whether their students were undocumented.

Zande said Carl Hayden was the only school to raise immigration-related concerns regarding the move to Canada. For other teams, Zande said, the trip offered a chance to visit another country. "I hate to say, 'Majority rules,' but . . . " she said.

Lajvardi said the Carl Hayden students, who pretty much constituted the Latino population at the competitions, had already felt looked down upon.

"The kids did it the next two years to prove that it wasn't a fluke," Lajvardi said. "But I didn't want our kids to be subjected to that discrimination."

So the team started its own underwater competition in Arizona. This year's, the second annual, was held at the Chandler High School swimming pool and attracted teams from colleges, high schools and prep schools from Arizona and California.

The Falcon Robotics team has taken itself out of the competition. It still makes a robot, runs the task and gets scored. But that score, although it has been the highest these past two years, has not counted in the final tally.

Two other teams from Carl Hayden entered. As did two of the original Carl Hayden underwater robot team members. Arcega was with a group of students from ASU. Santillan entered with a group of Carl Hayden alumni. Santillan said his eventual goal is to beat Falcon Robotics.

"I'll be challenging the teacher who taught me," he said. "I want to teach the teachers something that they haven't done yet."

Giving back

Santillan said he heads back to the campus every so often to talk to the robotics team.

"When I go (back) to Carl Hayden, I'm a god to them," Santillan said, shaking his head at the notion. Some students drop to their knees and bow to him. "I don't know why," he said. "I'm just another student who was trying to do something."

Aranda is aware that the four have been held up as a reason to pass the federal law known as the DREAM Act. It would provide legal residency and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children but then went on to college or military service.

"Most kids came over when they were young and they didn't have a choice," he said. "Like me - I didn't have a choice. They dragged me over here pretty much."

Typically, those who enter the U.S. illegally must return to their home country for 10 years before they can begin the citizenship process.

Vazquez said he will petition for permanent residency because he is married to a U.S. citizen. A child is on the way. If not, he said, he might have to consider moving out of the country in order to become an engineer.

"If (students) are here and do a good job in school, why can't you give a chance for those students?" he said. "That's what this country needs. The country is already bringing in educated people from other countries to do that work."

Arcega has finished studying machining at the Maricopa Skill Center. He said he initially didn't like the college course work because it wasn't hands-on and practical like he was used to. He expects to go back to college once he finds the right program. He's also waiting to see about getting permanent residency, and whether the climate in Arizona regarding illegal immigrants might soften.

"At least we made an impact," he said. "I don't know how much of a difference that makes, but we made a dent.

"You don't really get to hear it in the mass media about us, these success stories. You usually just hear the negative side."

An example of how the story can change minds came from a speech Cameron and Lajvardi gave in front of the Arizona chapter of AARP. Lajvardi didn't think retired people would be sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, and when he got to that part of his speech, some retirees walked out, he said.

But most stayed. And at the end of the speech, the teachers received a standing ovation. Then came a check for $10,000.

Next year, the Arizona competition will be called the AARP National Underwater Robotics Challenge.

Reach the reporter at richard or 602-444-8473.