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Students’ robotics work nets invitation to White House Science Fair

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WASHINGTON – They didn’t get to demonstrate their science fair project for President Barack Obama, but three Phoenix teens were not complaining after their trip Tuesday to the fourth White House Science Fair.

“It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, really,” said Diserae Sanders, 17, one of three students from the Carl T. Hayden Community High School robotics team who were invited to the White House.

“It was really cool shaking Obama’s hand and seeing all the science fair projects,” said Sanders.

She and teammates Quenan Ruiz, 17, and Martin Carranza, 18, stood just feet from the president while he announced several initiatives to boost STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math education.

They included a new $35 million Education Department competition, an expansion of STEM AmeriCorps and a national STEM mentoring program starting in seven cities.

For Sanders, one of a few girls at the science fair who met with the president before the event, it also included some questioning by administration officials involved in science and technology policy.

“We had a talk about our personal self and that’s when they asked us, ‘Hey, how can we get girls in STEM?’” she said.

The science fair included 100 students from more than 30 states who have researched everything from better football helmets to cancer treatments.

The three Hayden students caught the attention of the White House from documentary filmmaker Mary Mazzio’s “Underwater Dreams.” That film, which is being screened this summer, follows four former Hayden students and their teacher, Faridoden Lajvardi, who built an underwater robot that beat a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at a 2004 robotics competition.

“What’s really exciting about the story is not just that they defeated MIT, but the legacy that they left in their own community, and that’s where these guys come in,” Mazzio said.

Ruiz and Sanders said they were inspired by the story in Mazzio’s documentary, a story that Lajvardi said is ongoing.

“Our robotics team continued improving and getting better and entering multiple competitions, and to this day we’re one of the top teams in the country,” Lajvardi said.

The team is an extracurricular program where students raise money to build and program robots to compete at performing tasks.

The three Hayden students at the White House Tuesday took different paths to the Falcon Robotics Team. Sanders, who did robotics competitions in middle school, was recruited as a freshman. Carranza started three months into his freshman year and Ruiz joined as a sophomore, when Lajvardi urged him to join the team and to pursue a career in engineering.

All three stayed on the team until graduating this spring, and will continue competing through the summer.

For this year’s FIRST robotics competition, the students had to build a robot to throw giant yoga balls in certain bowls.

“We placed first place in Arizona,” Sanders said. “We went on to the international competition in St. Louis and in our division we made it to semifinals, but we didn’t win.”

In July, the team will go to California to participate in an underwater robotics competition with 46 universities all over the world.

“We’re eighth in the world so far in that competition,” Sanders said.

Ruiz said participating on the robotics team has encouraged him to pursue engineering.

“Competing in all these competitions is really motivating me to keep pursuing the career in engineering,” Ruiz said. “It’s a great experience.”

For Carranza, meeting the president was “weird.”

“I expected something different. On TV he looks a lot bigger,” he said, before adding that he was glad he got the chance.

“It was different than anything I’ve done before,” Carranza said. “It was something you really don’t get to do a lot so I’m excited I got the opportunity.”