OC Students Team Up for Robots
By Dianne Anderson
When it comes to robots, Black students are not exactly at the forefront of futuristic technology, which, for some people like Jeff Freeman, is about as exciting as running any ball.
In fact, he finds the mode of competitions to be similar, and his team this year is looking to make it all the way to the playoffs.
“I would go to the competition eight years ago, and see these teams, it’s like a football team but with robots. They have jerseys and cheerleaders,” said Freeman, who started Innovos Robotics, Inc. with Mark Olivier in 2016.
Freeman is now recruiting, getting his teams of 20 to 25 students together to prepare for big regional competitions, and hopefully, the nationals, as part of FIRST Robotics Competition which has over 3,200 students competing across the globe.
It’s a great way for youth to learn programming, coding, mechanical engineering skills, metal strap tension, CAD drawing, and teamwork, he said. But at this point, no one knows exactly what kind of robot they will build.
Specifications are unveiled in January when all teams learn the criteria of what their robot needs to do. Teams have six to eight weeks to build it, and then compete regionally. If they make it to the next level, they go on to the Houston championships.
Once he gets the team together, students deep dive into pre-work.
“As soon as the kickoff happens, everybody’s head is down working to build this robot because then you have to compete against other schools and organizations like mine and against their particular robots,” he said.
But he is concerned that African American students are missing out on STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] programs. It’s not only with robots, it’s all technology. At the regional competitions, he sees disparities in access with the strongest participation of white and Asian kids.
Early on, he was disturbed by what he saw at the robot competitions.
“The one or two Black kids there were carrying the robots or picking up after everybody, not doing the leadership, the programming. A lot of times that happens, Black folks get relegated to the back,” he said.
Robotics and automation are taking off in work and society, but the younger kids are not thinking about money or the future of jobs, they just like the fun.
Their parents, however, understand what’s at stake.
“When they get about the junior or senior [high school] level they start thinking that this can help me in college. Two things can help in college, one is coding or computer drafting CAD [Computer Aided Design],” said Freeman, who holds an MBA from Pepperdine University and a master’s in Software Engineering and a bachelor’s in Computer Engineering.
Regional teams start building their robots in the first week of January. By April, they face off against 60 others in teams in the FIRST Robotics Competition. Once the season is over, his team will showcase their final robot to local corporations.
“You still have this working robot, we go to some of the companies [that supported us] to show them what the kids did, how the robot works. We like to show them what their money has done,” he said.
Most of his students are from Orange County, but he said one student was making an arduous journey from San Fernando Valley. It paid off, he completed the program and received a full-ride scholarship to a major engineering college.
Freeman, in technology and engineering for the last 25 years, is an IT Program Manager at Cisco Systems, and has also worked for Disney, British Telecom and Accenture. He said his career has been good to him in Orange County, and he wants to give back and see more Black students learn to appreciate technology.
One reason for the disconnect may be that Black students not seeing others who look like them pursue technology fields.
“Some kids think that this is not for me, but if you are in an environment, like HBCUs, you’re around your people. It brings a sense of pride. You can be the leader that you are, and that’s what we’re trying to promote,” he said.
Parents are invited to contact him in the coming weeks as they get their team together. He also gleans some students from the nonprofit 100 Black Men of Orange County, where he has served in several capacities over many years.
Students coming into his program start as young as 12 years old through high school, and they are not sure what to expect.
“They think it’s going to be a little teeny tiny robot that follows lines. They find out it’s a 120-pound robot, full metal. You got to really work and get your hands dirty to make it happen,” he said.
For more information, see https://www.innovosrobotics.org/contact-us