MCKINLEY PARK — A group of seventh-graders who only a few weeks ago didn’t know the difference between nuts and screws are now among teams competing for a world robotics title.
“We’re really excited. I mean, this is our first year. We didn’t know what was possible, but we’re motivated and encouraged,” said Sergio Ortega, 13, a seventh-grader at Horizon Science Academy McKinley Park, a charter school at 2245 W. Pershing Road.
The three-student team, formally known as “Hawks on the Horizon," bested dozens of schools from across the Midwest in the FIRST Robotics Competition regional championships earlier this month at the UIC Pavilion. Their next stop is St. Louis for the 2014 world championships.
Part of a winning three-team alliance — better-ranked clubs strategically align with lesser squads — the Hawks were the only middle school team in a field full of high-schoolers.
The Hawks are Ortega and his twin brother, Luis, both of Bridgeport, and Andrew Taylor, 12, of Chatham. They were led by Sravan Suryadevara, a South Loop Web developer who’s active in the city’s robotics scene.
Suryadevara, 22, said working with a group of youngsters brought its own special challenges.
“It was tough to get them to focus and work together as a team. We were learning to use a drill maybe just five weeks back. They were still learning the difference between a screw and a bolt, that kind of stuff. But things happen,” he said.
Taylor said the group came a long way.
“We didn’t know much. I was always interested [in robots] but I don’t know much about how they function, about how motors run. It was like a trial-and-error situation,” he said.
The after-school robotics program, led by husband-and-wife Horizon teachers Ugur and Enisa Akgul, is a popular draw at the new charter school, which leaders say has a special focus on science, technology, engineering and math.
The Akguls said 28 Horizon students are involved in the robotics program, which so far has yielded four competitive teams — including the all-girl Pink TechnoBots — in the school's inaugural year, plus a handful of other students involved in the club.
Luis Ortega said he was always fascinated with robots, so joining the after-school club, with its rigorous three-hour practice sessions, was an easy choice. He said he wants to use the experience to make a career in engineering or the medical arts.
“It makes me want to become something bigger in life,” he said.