Fourth-graders learn robotics and racism

Photo: Panther Bots robotics team GoFundMe page.

Where would kids competing in a fourth-grade robotics competition learn racism and bigotry?

It happened to the Pleasant Run Panther Bots, who had just won the competition near Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Star reports. Two on the team are African-American, three are Latino.

“For the most part, the robotics world is kind of a white world,” Lisa Hopper, the team’s coach and a Pleasant Run second-grade teacher, tells columnist Suzette Hackney. “They’re just not used to seeing a team like our kids. And they see us and they think we’re not going to be competition. Then we’re in first place the whole day and they can’t take it.”

Parents and students were waiting in the parking lot after the competition. Parents and other fourth-graders were waiting in the school’s parking lot to tell the team to “Go back to Mexico.”

Yet, there is another part to this story, a pure beauty that exists because the Pleasant Run students refused to allow those ugly words to crush them. In fact, they’ve been emboldened by the hate. Three weeks after the incident, the Panther Bots won the Create Award — for best robot design and engineering — at the state championships, which qualified them for the Vex IQ World Championship next month in Louisville. They will compete with students from all over the world.

And they’ll walk in with confidence.

“They yelled out rude comments, and I think that they can talk all they want because at the end we’re still going to Worlds,” 10-year-old team leader Elijah Goodwin told me this week. “It’s not going to affect us at all. I’m not surprised because I’m used to this kind of behavior. When you have a really good team, people will treat you this way. And we do have a pretty good team.”

Hopper said she and her co-coach, after learning of the incident in Plainfield, gathered the team to see how they were handling it. They are resilient kids. They’re focused. They refuse to be victims.

“I was afraid they would let it get in their heads and wig them out,” Hopper said. “We sat down and talked to our kids, and obviously we let them share their feelings. They were on top of it already. They said: ‘We know they are mean. We know they were jealous. We’re not going to let it bother us.’ One of our guys said ‘to take stuff like that and let it make you stronger.’”

A few months ago, the members of the team knew nothing about robotics, Hackney says. But 10-students with potential were selected to try out for a robotics team that was being created thanks to a grant.

Related: Delano kicks off anti-racism campaign with candlelight vigil (Star Tribune)