Tech parents guide the next generation of space engineers

Palm Crest parents hope to turn enthusiasm for robotic competition into a regular program at the school.

May 02, 2013|By Tiffany Kelly,
  • The 2% Milk robotics team pose for a group photo after they showed the entire school how their robot picks up and deposits tennis balls at Palm Crest Elementary School in La Canada Flintridge on Friday, April 26, 2013.
The 2% Milk robotics team pose for a group photo after they… (Tim Berger / Staff…)

Palm Crest Elementary School sits four miles away from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where a team built and developed the Mars rover Curiosity, the largest machine sent to another planet.

But engineers at the La Cañada Flintridge lab may have some competition on the horizon: The school is starting a robotics program and a handful of students have already participated in an international competition.

PHOTOS: Palm Crest Elementary robotics team shows off skills

After parents — including some who worked on Curiosity — secured a grant to work on a new pilot robotics program for elementary students, they put together a team of 10 students.

The team, named 2% Milk, had a month to develop the machine, using a kit supplied by VEX Robotics. At the Anaheim Convention Center last month, they wheeled out their creation, Bessy, which had the capacity to drop tennis balls into buckets.

They didn’t win first place, but parents think the experience was valuable.


“At sixth grade, it’s hard to know what science and math is going to be good for,” said Fred Serricchio, a JPL engineer who worked on guiding Curiosity to Mars. “It’s important to give them a real world experience.”

Serricchio’s son, Owen, competed in Anaheim. He said the students involved in the competition were already interested in robotics and science, so it didn’t take much to encourage them.

“There was very little guidance,” he said. “They were very enthusiastic.”

Now parents are trying to drum up support to sustain a robotics program at the school.

Sugi Sorensen, another JPL engineer and Palm Crest parent, said there are about 20 parents who work at the lab, and of those, at least eight worked on Curiosity.

“We figured it’s a natural fit,” Sorensen said. “We have so many [JPL] parents who have kids here. We should have a world-class robotics program.”

Sorensen said they had to cancel their first meeting for the program because there was too much interest: More than 90 students showed up. “We didn’t have a room big enough.”

He said he plans to approach local businesses and write letters to obtain grants to get the program running.

The school was able to participate in the VEX Robotics competition last month through Palm Crest parent Hans Ku, who was approached after mentoring high school students for several years on FIRST Robotics competitions.

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