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Cracking the code

Out of her comfort zone and into a new passion

Godwin Heights – An email about the school robotics program sparked the interest of Godwin Heights High School senior Gabriela Veloz — and may change the trajectory of her career path.

“I was looking for something new,” Gabriela recalled. “I had been watching this TV show that involved computer science and coding, and so when the opportunity for the robotics team came up, I decided to try it out and see what all is involved in it.”

She reached out to robotics team coach Ryan Hoch about learning more about the team.

“I mostly have freshmen and sophomores,” Hoch said. “So having a senior meant the younger students had someone they looked up to who, by being interested, showed she thought it was cool to be involved.

“But Gabriela also showed the students that through everything — scheduling, the pandemic, and applying for colleges — that she found the time to be part of the team. She made it a priority.”

Gabriela Veloz, a senior at Godwin Heights, sorts through a box of Legos to decide what she needs to build her next robot

What is Robotics?

First Robotics is a global nonprofit community aimed at bringing STEM education to students in hopes of encouraging them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. 

Hoch started the district’s team last year, a couple of months before the coronavirus pandemic forced Michigan school buildings to close. He had three students then, and through a mentorship program with Wyoming Public Schools was able to have Wyoming’s eighth-graders help the team build its first robot.

Due to the pandemic, the team was only able to participate in one competition in 2020. This year, First Robotics revamped the program, offering more virtual activities. The team also created a three-dimensional game field that First Robotics can use in future competitions.

Despite those challenges, Hoch said he has seen tremendous growth of the program. This year, it expanded from three students to nine, and he added a First Lego League for second-graders at West Godwin Elementary. 

Hoch will offer a summer Lego program, and has plans to add a robotics program to the middle school this fall.

“I want to make this available in all of our buildings so that every student has the opportunity to participate,” Hoch said, adding he has received tremendous support from school leaders and the community, whom he said have seen the benefits of a STEM-based after-school program like robotics.

A Glitch Sparks a Passion

Because the 2021 First Robotics Competition season was short, Hoch decided to extend it by having students use donated Lego sets to build robots and work on coding.

Gabriela was an online student and had commitments to the varsity soccer team, so Hoch let her take one of the Lego kits home. 

“I just really wanted to build something with my hands and get it to do what you want,” Gabriela said. “So I just started working with Legos and after about 30 minutes realized, I could do this.”

She decided to follow the pattern of an existing robot, MindCuber, which she found online. The goal of the robot was to solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 40 moves. Building it was not difficult, she said, but she hit a roadblock during coding.

“Something was off with the coding,” Hoch said. Gabriela kept plugging away at it on her own.

“It was a lot of emails back and forth and I just was not sure I was ever going to get it,” Gabriela recalled. “After four hours, it worked. I was very excited. It worked for 20 seconds. I had to go back and rebuild (the robot) because something was interfering with the movements. So I fixed it.”

She fixed the existing code, which Hoch admitted is impressive for a student who until a few months ago, didn’t know much about coding or robots.

What’s Next: A Different Path?

Gabriela plans to attend the University of Michigan in the fall and major in business, but the robotics program has her thinking of adding at least a minor in computer science. 

Or, she might major in it. 

“My goal was to get into the Ross School of Business, which is pretty competitive,” Gabriela said,” but I know if I don’t make it into Ross, I have a fallback in computer science.”

As she prepares for college this summer, Gabriela said she plans to dismantle the robot and design her own with a code she creates, because “I want to see if I can do it.”

She also would like to be the spark for another student to step out and try new things.

“Step outside of your comfort zone and look at new possibilities because you never know what you are going to like,” Gabriela said. “If I had never answered Mr. Hoch’s email, I would have never done this.”

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma covers Kent ISD and Godwin Heights. She was born in the Detroit area but grew up in Brighton where she attended Hartland Public Schools. The salutatorian for the Class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism and minored in photography and German. She expanded her color palette to include orange and black as both her daughters graduated from Byron Center Public Schools; maroon and white for Aquinas College where her daughter studies nursing and also brought back blue and maize for Grand Rapids Community College where her youngest daughter currently is studying music. Read Joanne's full bio

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