From left: Elijah Goodwin, 10, Angel Herrera-Sanchez, 9, Jose Verastagui, 10, Manuel Mendez, 9, and Devilyn Bolyard, 9, are headed to the VEX IQ worldwide robotics competition, which starts Sunday in Louisville. (Lisa Hopper)

Just a few months ago, not many knew about these five fourth-graders from a low-income community in Indianapolis.

But now, the Panther Bots, a thriving robotics team at Pleasant Run Elementary School, have become the face of a success story about a group of kids who were taunted with racial slurs but were too determined to let that affect their confidence. Earlier this month, they found themselves being honored on the Senate floor of the Indiana Statehouse. The group travels to Louisville on Sunday to compete in a worldwide robotics contest.

“I cried. I literally cried. I’m so emotional right now because I know it’s hard for them,” said Darshie Owens, whose son, 10-year-old Elijah Goodwin, is a member of the Panther Bots. “I mean, like, going through the robotics competition. There’s not a lot of African American students and not a lot of Hispanic students in robotics competitions.”

Getting to that point had not been easy.

In early February, after the students won a local robotics challenge — a steppingstone to qualify for a state robotics championship — a couple of competitors from other schools were heard screaming, “You need to go back to Mexico!”

Diocelina Herrera, a parent of one of the Panther Bots, said she heard the taunts after the competition as she and her family were walking to the parking lot and were about to leave. She said she also heard rumblings from fellow parents who referred to the winning students as Mexicans.

“We didn’t say anything. We went to our car and left,” Herrera said. “We didn’t want to get in an argument with these kinds of people.”

Herrera’s son, Angel Herrera-Sanchez, was saddened by the incident, said Panther Bots coach Lisa Hopper. The 9-year-old wondered if he had done something to make people angry at him.

“‘You were fine. You shouldn’t worry about their actions. The way you guys competed and the way you held yourself at the competition was perfect, and we’re so proud of you,'” Hopper recalled telling the boy and his teammates. “I just had to assure the kids that they had done everything correctly, and it wasn’t due to anything they had done.”

The robotics team at Pleasant Run, where about 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, was started last year, thanks to a grant from the office of the city’s former mayor, Greg Ballard. The members were chosen after a series of tryouts in which fourth-graders who were recommended by their teachers were asked to build a Lego kit without instructions.

“We just kind of watched to see who stepped up to the plate and took leadership roles, who’s good at organizing and communicating and who works well with others,” Hopper said.

Five students — three Latinos and two African Americans — were selected. Elijah and Angel, along with 9-year-old Devilyn Bolyard, 10-year-old Jose Verastegui and 9-year-old Manuel Mendez, followed a robotics curriculum in which they were taught engineering and the basics of how to build a robot.

The students built four prototypes before coming up with the final product they presented at competitions, Hopper said. They also did extensive research on self-driving cars and applied what they had learned to the programming of their robot.

In late February, the team won best robot design during the statewide VEX IQ robotics competition and qualified for the VEX IQ world robotics tournament, a three-day event that starts Sunday at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.

“These five kids are some of the brightest and best kids I’ve had in my whole teaching career,” Hopper said. “They’re a dream team, and it’s been wonderful working with them.”

Before joining the robotics team, none of the children had expressed an interest in engineering. But they’ve now discovered passions they didn’t have before.

Angel, for example, had little interest in school and had poor grades last year. Now, he’s at the top of his class and is already contemplating a career in engineering, said Herrera, his mother. Manuel had a similar transformation. Hopper said the boy’s mother told her that he used to hate waking up every morning to go school. Now, he “would just jump out of bed,” Hopper said.

Elijah, however, has always been interested in academics. He loves science and math and is a member of the student council, said Owens, his mother. He has thought about becoming an FBI agent, a politician or a basketball player.

After news of the racial slur incident came out last month, scores of strangers have shown their support for the Panther Bots. More than 200 people raised about $12,000 to help send the team to the world competition. The teammates have received notes, cards, buttons and CDs from artists from around the country. They also received a banner wishing all the teams headed to the world championships good luck. On it was a special message to the kids: “We support Panther Bots.”

Hopper said that two women, one from California and another from New York, have volunteered to travel to Louisville and surprise the kids with cupcakes and ice cream. “The Panther Bots has friends and fans from almost every state,” she said.

Despite all the recognition, the students have remained humble. “If you meet them, they’re really laid-back and good kids,” said Owens, a mother of six boys and one girl. “They don’t expect to win.”

Herrera, a mother of three, said the outpouring of support for her son and his teammates surprised her. “There’s too many good people,” she said, “and they cared.”


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