UC attorney mentors robotics team
by Brett Hanavan
Published - 07/05/07 - 12:56 PM | 2559 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In April 2007, Luce Forward Hamilton and Scripps (LLP) attorney and partner John T. Brooks led a team (Team E.M.P.) of San Diego students to top awards at the FIRST Vex Challenge (FVC) Robotics World Championship in Atlanta.

Team E.M.P. was made up of six students from High Tech High International.

The competition challenged students and their mentors to solve an engineering design problem in a unique and competitive way. Teams built robots from a kit of parts and a common set of rules and entered them in a series of trials.

High Tech High received top honors at the event through an alliance with partners from Canada and New Jersey. This three-team alliance defeated 97 other teams from five countries in three rounds of competition and was undefeated throughout the competition.

The High Tech Village students were Jeb Brooks, Mark Escobedo, Justin Ripley, Ian Schroeder, R.J. Sheperd and Julien Van Wambeke-Long.

High Tech High International is located in Point Loma. It is a public charter school within the San Diego Unified School District. There are multiple schools on the High Tech campus:  High Tech High; High Tech High International; High Tech High Media Arts; High Tech Middle; and High Tech Middle Media Arts. 

"The kids on the two teams I coach come from all of these schools except High Tech High Media Arts," said Brooks, who lives in University City. "One other team member goes to Carmel Valley Middle School."

The High Tech schools share a project-oriented curriculum, he said.

"That means that they teach to a large degree through hands-on projects rather than old-fashioned, textbook-based learning," Brooks said. "One of the advantages of this approach is that, for many kids, it generates more excitement about learning, and it promotes a better real world connection between theory and practice."

Brooks and his wife Marion also mentored Einstein's Daughters, an all-girl team comprising Katy Anderson from High Tech High, Katie Brooks and Mia Sheperd of High Tech Middle, Laura Decorte of High Tech High International, Katie Ho and Maddie Taylor of High Tech Middle Media Arts and Caitlyn Mackey of Carmel Valley Middle School. Einstein's Daughters was given the Innovate Award for the most innovative design solution to this year's challenge.

Judges indicated that the girls achieved a solution they had not yet seen in competition.

"Being a mentor for this competition has been extremely rewarding," Brooks said. "Each student has worked diligently and shown an incredible level of creative and sophisticated thinking. I am honored to have worked with this incredible group, and I am so proud of their accomplishments as a team."

Brooks has been coaching youth robotics for five years. His involvement began when his oldest son Jeb expressed an interest in robotics at age 9. About that time they learned about a robotics league for 9- to 14-year-olds.

"The league includes over 6,000 teams from 20 countries," Brooks said. "My son formed a team of friends and competed in that league for four years, placing second in 2004. A different team that included my daughter and youngest son and their friends placed second in 2006.

"In 2006, my son and his friends were ready to move up to the next level of FIRST robotics competition "” a league called the FIRST Vex Challenge."

After watching his son's team, Brooks' oldest daughter, 13-year-old Katie, decided that if her brother could do it, she could, too.

"She put together the all-girls team, Einstein's Daughters," Brooks said. "My wife Marion was the lead coach of that team and I assisted her." 

At this point, both teams "” EMP and Einstein's Daughters "” won the San Diego Regional tournament and qualified to compete at the World Championship. 

"Both teams were recently honored both by Mayor Sanders and Congresswoman Susan Davis for their accomplishments this year and spent a half-hour with each of these officials talking about the FIRST league," Brooks said.

Brooks said there are several things special about each of the two teams.

"The most special thing about EMP was the tremendous dedication and creativity they showed in coming up with a design idea and constantly refining it to improve the robot's performance," Brooks said. "Their ultimate design, a front-end loader that picked up softballs and loaded them onto a scissor-lift, which raised the softballs to scoring height, proved to be one of the highest scoring and most reliable bots in the league.

"The most special thing about Einstein's Daughters was their motivation to show that girls can compete head-to-head with boys and beat them in science and engineering while still proudly embracing their "˜girliness,'" Brooks added. "For example, they wore pink ribbons in their hair during the competition and passed out stick-on rhinestones so that other participants could decorate their safety goggles."

While Brooks has no specific mechanical engineering background, his guidance and ability as a mentor can't be overlooked.

"I have an interest in science and engineering but no professional background," he said. "And, while I provide some guidance on technical issues, the truth is that the kids self-teach on many of the technical aspects of the robots. What it takes to succeed as a mentor is to help the kids learn disciplined habits of thought, like brainstorming, teamwork and testing. These transform their raw brainpower into radical, problem-solving approaches. That's something any adult, even a lawyer, can do if willing to put in the time."

FIRST, founded in 1989 and based in Manchester, N.H., has a goal to inspire students' interest and participation in science and technology through programs that encourage young people. It comprises more than 60,000 volunteers and is supported by more than 2,000 individuals, corporations and educational and professional organizations.

In his law practice at Luce Forward, Brooks specializes in consumer class action defense, insurance bad faith, civil writs and appeals and general business litigation. 
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