HONOLULU — Thinking about the future for Alicia Coates used to be limited to figuring out where her next meal would come from or locating a safe place to sleep.
Coates is now building robots and competing with some of the best young minds from across the nation with aspirations of owning her own business one day.
While 37 high school teams from as far away as Florida and New Jersey are competing in this weekend’s Hawaii regional FIRST Robotics Competition, no team has been on a longer journey than SIATech, a public charter school from San Jose, Calif.
"I had no opportunities in the past,” said Coates, a 20-year-old SIATech student who was homeless for six months last year in Sacramento. "I didn’t have an interest in building robots and engineering and all that stuff. Now, it’s opened up a whole new world for me.”
Coates and her teammates had all dropped out of traditional high schools at least once and many, if not all, come from poor families. The teens have faced personal challenges to last a lifetime, ranging from drugs and gangs to neglect and violence.
One of the SIATech participants recently lost a friend in a drive-by shooting.
Today, they’ve turned their lives around with the help of the robotics program and caring mentors.
"A lot of people look at them as ’at risk.’ We see them as ’at promise,”’ said Laurie Pianka, principal at SIATech. "Given the right support and the right environment, they can do anything.”
The school is a partner with Job Corps, the nation’s largest federal residential education and training program for disadvantaged youth. So some of the students live at school.
Despite a student body comprised of former dropouts, SIATech graduates a quarter of its students. However, it boasts a perfect graduation rate for students who have participated in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics program and some have moved and are pursuing careers from architecture to computer engineering.
Seth Swearingen, 19, has been on his own for the past five years. He was spiraling in a life of drugs and crime. Today, he has goals of using skills learned in FIRST to earn a scholarship to help pay for college.
"I don’t know what it’s like to have everything paid for and not worry about things like that,” he said. "I’ve been worrying my whole life.”
This weekend, the only thing he’s worried about is winning.
"It’s beautiful,” he said, looking up at the sunny skies and palm trees at the University of Hawaii, where the competition is being held.
SIATech is known as "Team 1834” and can be spotted from a distance by their neon-yellow T-shirts. It has the financial backing of Google, BAE Systems and others.
"Some of our kids look a little tough but they’re just big kids,” Pianka said. "They’re so appreciative and excited. They’re excited about getting on a plane. They’re excited about having bars of soap in the hotel room. Everything is new and exciting.”
While the wealthiest private schools in Hawaii are represented in the competition, so are many schools from low income or rural areas, such as Waialua and Waiakea, which have built two of the top programs.
Dale Olive, a mentor at Waiakea High School, said students used to be afraid to apply to college on the mainland because they thought they couldn’t compete, but FIRST has given them the confidence and education they need.
FIRST, founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen, teaches students about problem solving, teamwork, dedication, self-confidence and communication.
SIATech students say for the first time in their lives, they feel like they belong.
As they build their robots, they are also rebuilding their lives.
"They don’t even know they’re learning because they’re having so much fun,” said Alexander Ho, FIRST’s regional director for Hawaii.
The schools compete for points and are judged on how well their robots can lift, carry and pass a ball while racing around a track.
Jim Beck, FIRST’s western regional director, said the program’s goal is to inspire young people to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology as baby boomers retire.
"Everybody wants a piece of these kids because they are the future work force,” he said.
Six schools will advance to next month’s FIRST Championship in Atlanta.
Gov. Linda Lingle helped bring the competition to Hawaii as part of her initiative to diversify the state’s economy with high technology and encourage the fields of math, science and engineering.
She also helped secure a $1 million grant from NASA to host the event for four years.
SIATech’s Aaron Cedillo said the best things about the robotics program is building a robot from scratch and competing.
Cedillo and his teammates find themselves in a position they’ve been in before.
"We’re the underdogs,” he said.
This time, they say, they’re up to the challenge.
On the Net:
SIATech robotics: http://robotics.siatech.org/