The Robotics Team at Mae Jemison High School has come a long way.

Just a few years ago, they had one student. Now there are about 20.

The first time the team went to a competition, they didn’t have a working robot.

Last year, they were the third highest-ranked team in the state, and the second-highest ranked team in North Alabama in the regional competition.

As they’ve grown, so has the facilities. New this year, they don’t have to pack everything up in a closet each night. They have their own lab.

Thanks to many sponsors, they have their own tools, and, for the first time, they’re getting to travel out of state for a competition.

Thanks to several mentors who volunteer countless hours, they have a little more know-how.

“A lot of kids think I can’t do robotics. I can’t build a robot,” Joan Keever, who mentors the robotics team, said. “They can.”

Keever added, even if robots aren’t your thing, there are dozens of other ways students can help and get involved.

In one corner of the converted physics lab at Mae Jemison, you have Prabenjan Mayalagu, who is in his first year with the club, working on some code, while across the room, other students are working on cutting out paper circles.

Richard Bradshaw, another student, is working to make some hardware pieces fit on a robot, and mentors Jim French, Jim Dailey, and Joshua Yarbrough are at the marker board working on diagrams.

Another mentor, Cydale Smith, is figuring in a notebook, while there’s a robot running up and down the hallway outside.

It’s a busy place.

It’s like this Just about every night, and sometimes on the weekends. The faces change as students and mentors come and go, but they’re all working together to get ready for this year’s competition, which was announced in January.

The students compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition.

Each year the competition draws over 100,000 students in over 35 different countries who participate at numerous events around the world.

“One of the unique things about FIRST is the stress what they call gracious professionalism, which really means compete with everybody, but cooperate with everybody,” French said. “If somebody needs something and you’ve got it, let them borrow it, give it to them or whatever.

“It makes for a great atmosphere. It’s exciting. It’s competitive, but the kids are all enjoying one another.”

Each match lasts about two-and-a-half minutes, and this year FIRST has teamed up with Lucasfilm and Disney to have the students have to save FIRST City from approaching asteroids caused by a nearby space skirmish.

There’s a whole video that explains the challenge at

It’s a complex challenge that requires shooting foam balls, or power cells, into various targets and ending up with your robot and another robot hanging from a lever in a way so that it’s balanced like a balancing scale.

The student’s first competition is March 19 in Memphis, but it’s about more than the competition.

“Robotics and engineering have always been something I like to do,” Hieu Nguyen, a senior, said.

“It combines coding and computer design with each other, and that is something I’d really like to do. And, scholarships are also a big plus as well.”

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