How the sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants built a ROV and won a national competition


I cannot wait to see Underwater Dreams narrated by Michael Peña, and written and directed by Mary Mazzio.  The story is how sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants built a ROV to compete in a national competition. Despite being poor kids with no resources, and starting off with no knowledge of how to build an ROV, they won beating colleges, that’s right colleges, like MIT with more resources.  As a friend and colleague wrote, “The sad story–these bright kids were barred by and large from attending public university in the United States.”

This is how it transpired. Two energetic high school computer science teachers, on a whim, decided to enter their high school, a Title I school where most of the students live in poverty, into a sophisticated underwater robotics competition sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and NASA, among others. Only four boys signed up for the competition. But once assembled, with enthusiasm and verve, they called oceanic engineers and military contractors for design help. They were advised that their underwater robot would require glass syntactic flotation foam. But short on money, all they could afford was PVC pipe from Home Depot. And duct tape.  After a few test runs of their PVC and duct-taped robot, the team was confident that they would not come in last at the event, so they all piled into a beat up van to head to the venue for the competition. The boys entered the main pool area, seeing college teams in matching gear, with robots sponsored by the likes of Exxon Mobil. On the first run, the PVC did not hold up. The robot leaked. And sunk. The boys put their heads together and hilariously came up with a brilliant solution. 12 hours later, armed with 8 super-plus tampons to plug the leak in the mechanical housing, the PVC robot was lowered into the pool again – but this time, performed admirably. Fast forward to a shocking result. This rag-tag high school team of undocumented Mexican boys did what no one thought was possible.

This competition, however, was only the beginning. These boys began a legacy that could not have been imagined. A legacy which inspired the next generation of students that science and technology might be a pathway forward. A legacy which inspired the next generation of students to solve problems. And to have a voice. (Many of these engineering students have become activists and community leaders, particularly around (a) teaching younger middle school students about technology, and (b) the Dream Act.)

It this doesn’t get your right in the feels then there is no help for your soul. You can rent or buy the video here.

Dr. M (1800 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Additionally, Craig is obsessed with the size of things. Sometimes this translated into actually scientific research. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.