Belle Ryan Elementary School's robotics club was in regrouping mode.
It was the end of January, and its two teams were fresh off their first VEX Robotics competition at King Science Middle. VEX produces robot kits and programming software, and its extracurricular robotics program is the largest in the world.
This competition involved using custom-built robots to push multicolored balls around an area shaped like a baseball diamond, so the Belle Ryan teams built their robots with a scooping arm they thought would give them an edge over the other teams.
That strategy didn't exactly pay off.
“Our claw didn't do jack squat,” fifth-grader Gabriel Kuncl said.
“We're back to square one,” sixth-grader McKenna Revis sighed.
The next competition at Picotte Elementary was fast approaching. At Belle Ryan, it was time to rebuild.
As they dismantled their two robots, thinking a bulldozer-like front would be the best way to maneuver the balls around, this group of fifth- and sixth-graders called in the reinforcements: three software engineers from aerospace and defense giant Northrop Grumman.
“We need the help,” fifth-grader Wyatt Rath said. “We're down in numbers.”
By day, Victor Sanchez, Jose Pena and Zach Barnett work for the global security company's Bellevue office. On Thursday afternoons, they're at the mercy of an elementary school robotics club that leans on their programming and technical know-how to build robots that can zip around a room with a flick of a remote control button.
The three engineers volunteered this year to mentor Belle Ryan's fledgling club. None of them has much experience building robots out of wires and brackets and screws, but they're learning, along with the teams — half of whom had never picked up a screwdriver before joining the club.
“I wish I had this when I was going to school,” Barnett said as he helped fifth-grader Derek Rothe retool one of the robots.
As part of its national bid to encourage interest in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields at a young age, Northrop Grumman donated $1,000 to Belle Ryan's robotics club when funding became scarce.
“The demand for highly qualified, diverse STEM candidates far exceeds the supply,” Northrop corporate lead executive Russ Anarde said.
“We're trying to do everything we can to promote STEM and be part of an experience that hopefully drives home the point to our young people that this stuff is really exciting, that it's hard work, but if you stay with it, there's a lot that's possible,” he said.
While the financial gift was appreciated, sending young mentors — all three are in their 20s — to assist the teams and coach James Cattau has been an added bonus, Principal Charla Johnson said.
“They ask, 'Where are they, are they coming?' every week,” she said. “It really means a lot to them that they're here.”
The two teams, Team A and Team B, are made up of about eight kids, most in fifth and sixth grade. They have to apply for a spot on the team.
“These are kids who may not be into sports or band or chorus, and it's another outlet for them to showcase their strengths and get involved with a team,” Johnson said.
“I like Thursdays,” sixth-grader Gerard Christian said. “I get to hang around with friends and build robots.”
Since the fall, the three engineers have gradually learned the ins and outs of robotics competitions, which have exploded in popularity in recent years. The King Science competition drew more than 50 elementary and middle school teams from Omaha-area schools.
Sanchez said that while the kids don't exactly quiz him on the intricacies of software programming, it's important to him and his employer to expose students to real-world STEM jobs and workers.
“Our company is really pushing to get younger generations involved in STEM fields,” he said. “And it's been really fun. We had to stay longer in the beginning to take apart the robots and controllers and see where the wires go, but we're trying to teach them, trying to mentor them, and it's been fun.”
All three engineers showed up for the King Science competition, which took place on a Saturday.
“We saw their faces when we came in,” Sanchez said. “I don't think they knew we were going to show