By ANNIKA HAMMERSCHLAG The Naples Daily News Mar 11, 2018
IMMOKALEE, Fla. (AP) — Christy Kobes jumps to her sock-and-sandal feet, sending a vibration rippling down the metal bleachers.
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Think destructive thoughts!” she yells to her son’s team.
Her cellphone, attached to a lanyard around her neck, swings back and forth as her enthusiasm builds.
It’s day four of the tournament in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kobes’ voice is strained, though her forceful cheering rises above the other moms that fill the expansive exposition center.
Then, an abrupt pause: She sits down, bows her head, and says a prayer.
Seconds later, she’s back on her feet, bellowing orders to the team.
Kobes is no soccer mom. What she does, she said, is far more demanding.
“The soccer moms, they buy the shoes and sit on their phones while someone else manages their kids’ practice,” she said. “But as a robo mom, I have to do everything.”
Robo mom. As in robotics.
The after-school activity has been credited with drawing children to science and technology fields; mothers tell of little ones staying up into the early morning hours programming and building robots.
Robotics companies have cashed in on the trend, selling assembly kits and organizing regional competitions. Students build their robots to fit the object of the game, which changes each year.
VEX Robotics, one of the country’s leading robotics kit suppliers, hosted the largest-ever robotics world championship competition last April, inviting 1,400 middle and high school and university-level teams from 30 countries to the weeklong event.
Immokalee High School’s two robotics teams, Megazord and Dragonzord, were among the competitors.
As she has done every year since 2015, Kobes drove her son’s team 6½ hours from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to attend the event — a short excursion compared to the journeys taken by the Kazakh, Ethiopian and Thai teams.
That year, the game consisted of two allied teams competing against two others to see how many objects each could throw over to the other side of a 12-by-12 foot rink. The teams with the fewest objects on their sides of the arena after two minutes won.
Slabs of metal scurried around the rink, gathering bundles of foam stars and cubes and flinging them over the divide. A designated team driver operated the bot with a video game controller as their teammates watched the action with furrowed brows.
In a special round, the robots performed the tasks autonomously — that is, if their programming didn’t fail.
Even during manually controlled rounds, the bots often malfunctioned, collided or flipped over, and teams would rush back to their booths between matches to make repairs.
“This is more intense than football,” said robo mom Evelyn Amoros, who co-coaches her son’s robotics team with Kobes. “My heart rate is constantly pumped up.”
As the team circled their robot to fix a mechanical failure, Kobes and Amoros hovered over their shoulders with tools at the ready: batteries, rubber bands, screws and, of course, snacks.
“I would’ve forgotten to eat today if they weren’t here,” said Amoros’ son Greg, 17.
As she nervously chomped on a piece of gum, Amoros gave the team last-minute instructions: focus, win, and don’t forget your protective goggles.
Between cheering and shouting commands, Amoros, 52, a single mother and Spanish teacher, detailed the countless hours she has dedicated to supporting her son’s five-person team. She and other robo moms said their children’s schools were too focused on their traditional sports teams to provide resources to their robotics programs, leaving it up to parents to step in as coaches.
Kobes, 47, a gynecologist, and Amoros taught themselves engineering. Eagerly swiping through photos on her phone, Kobes showed off the classroom trailer she and Amoros helped transform to house a robotics field.
The team had painted an Albert Einstein quote on the wall: It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.
“I’m in charge of organizing the team, recruiting members, doing administrative work, making budgets and arranging transport,” Kobes said. “I attend every practice, sometimes seven days a week, from four until sometimes 10 at night. And all through spring break and Easter.”
She and Amoros regularly cook dinner for the team and drive them to competitions on the weekends.
“We’re their mothers,” Kobes said. “We never leave.”
And the commitment has been worth it, they said. Kobes’ son Grant, 17, went from being a shy introvert to spending his evenings on a headset chatting with robotics enthusiasts around the world. He even is a frequent guest commentator on a robotics talk show, and his grades have soared.
As for Amoros, robotics competitions brought her son back to life, she said.
Greg used to be captain of the swim team and a star football player. Sports were his identity, Amoros said.
When he got a concussion playing football, a tumor formed on his brain, triggering chronic seizures. The doctors said he couldn’t play sports anymore. He sank into a deep depression and was homebound for six months. He didn’t want to return to school.
But when Grant introduced him to the world of robotics, Greg discovered a new passion. Robotics, he found, offered the same camaraderie and excitement as contact sports.
Tearing up, Amoros said she couldn’t be more grateful.
“What it’s done for my son is beyond anything I could ever imagine,” she said. “They’ve learned how to care not just about the robot, but each other.”
Amoros remembers the early days when he’d ask her for help with mechanical problems. But now he figures it out on his own.
It’s like letting go of her baby as he takes his first steps, she said.
“He may fall, but he can pick himself up,” she said. “And as a mom, that makes me very happy, and I’ll keep on cheering all his successes and keep wiping the tears when there’s failure.”
Yesnia Diaz, a robo mom who flew in with her 15-year-old son’s team from Puerto Rico, said she too owed a great deal to robotics. Due to a disability that stunted his growth, her son Sebastian Caballero was never able to play competitive sports. He felt like he was missing out.
When Diaz learned about competitive robotics, she made sure he could participate.
She organized bake sales and contacted local TV stations to raise money. Her son’s school was so small that they didn’t have room for a field, so Diaz and her husband, Efrhayn Caballero, built one in their backyard out of wood and zip ties.
Despite all the work, she never forgets her most important role: No. 1 fan.
Decked out in headbands topped with feathered pom poms, Mardi Gras necklaces with bells attached and a Puerto Rican flag draped over their shoulders, Diaz and her daughter cheered on the team through dozens of matches. Diaz wore a fanny pack, but sometimes she wears a tutu instead, she said.
After a win, they paraded around the Louisville convention center waving flags and singing songs.
For the last three years, the team has won the spirit award at regional competitions.
“We want them to know that we’re going to be there for them when things go well and when things don’t go as planned,” Diaz said.
As a parent, she said, she feels accomplished that she has been able to give him this opportunity. Despite being a little person, she said, he has grown so much: Robotics has taught him to appreciate other people’s strengths and how to leverage his own.
Other robo moms said that in addition to encouraging their children to pursue careers in science and technology, robotics has taught them time management skills and how to solve problems under pressure; they have learned how to be leaders but also how to work as a team.
After Greg and Grant won their match — one of about six they played that day — Amoros and Kobes gathered the team with their alliance for a group photo. The teens struggled to hold their smiles as Kobes took an extra few moments to find the right button on her phone.
As they returned to their booth, Kobes and Amoros reflected on their roles as mothers.
The most exciting part of parenting, they agreed, is watching their children find their passions and realize their dreams.
“And whose dreams come true at 17?” Kobes said, nodding toward Greg and Grant who were busy rummaging through a drawer of spare parts. “That’s why we’re cheering so loud.”
At the 2017 competition, the boys’ team qualified for finals and placed 27th in their roughly 200-team division.
They since have graduated from high school and are working toward degrees in engineering — Greg at the University of South Carolina and Grant at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Greg is taking a break from robotics, but Grant volunteers as a referee at high school competitions and started a robotics program in the first month of his freshman year. Without funding or lab space to start, Grant used leftover parts from his high school robot and built a new one on the floor of his dorm room. He plans to take it to compete in the university division at the world championship in April.
Kobes plans to fly out to support him.
Although she is excited for the trip, Kobes said the absence of her son and his team from her daily life has left a void.
The house feels empty, she said.
But things are getting better; she has two other children after all.
One is performing in her school’s rendition of “Beauty and the Beast.” Kobes helped build the set and she plans to attend all four shows. But she fears there won’t be much left to do after the final curtain call.
Her other child is a soccer player, but being a soccer mom just isn’t the same, she said.
Last weekend was the first game of the season.
“I had the lawn chair and everything,” she said. “But it got rained out.”