Antonio Harrell signed up to design and build competition robots at Dunbar High School because, he says, he "didn't have anything else to do."
Three years later, the 18-year-old senior has gotten so good at engineering robots, he's teaching Baltimore's business leaders how to use them.
"He did a great job. Well, he did better than I expected he would do," Harrell said Sunday after Eliot Pearson, AOL's principal software engineer, finished operating a robot Harrell and two other Dunbar students built.
In the spirit of March Madness, Harrell and other students coached notable area business leaders and CEOs through a bracket-style robotics tournament. As drones hovered at the Baltimore Robotics Center, the charity event raised money for the Vex High School Robotics League — which transforms math into a brain-stimulating action sport.
Ed Mullin, founder of the center, said the event was aimed not just at raising money for the teams; it also was intended to pair CEOs with young people, in hopes that the business leaders would offer summer jobs to students.
"Even the top players at the top schools — the ones getting scholarships to colleges — cannot find summer jobs. They don't have the connections," Mullin said. "CEOs are very competitive. I knew that if these people met these kids they would like them and want to hire them."
Among the competitors were Todd Marks, founder of Mindgrub Technologies LLC; Paul Brooks, owner of Brooks Financial Group, Inc.; and Jan Baum, director of 3D Maryland.
Pearson, who maneuvered Harrell's robot to successfully knock down a series of balls, said students learn real-world skills by joining robotics teams.
"You've got to learn a lot of engineering skills. You've got to learn a lot of mechanical skills, because not only do you have to build it, you have to maintain it as well," he said. Of Sunday's event, he said: "It's a great opportunity for the students to get face-to-face with a CEO and be able to build a relationship."
The VEX Robotics Competition is aimed at instilling interest in science, technology, math and engineering careers among students, organizers said.
Keimmie Booth, an 18-year-old graduate of Western High School, said her experience on the robotics team took her to nationals in California twice. Now a freshman at the University of Baltimore, Booth said she not only learned about engineering from the team, but also gained confidence in public speaking.
"Robotics teaches you about engineering, math, and also business and how to interact with people," she said. "I can now go into class and give presentations like that," she added, with a snap of her fingers.
The Baltimore City Robotics Center is a non-profit established to expand robotics opportunities for Baltimore City students. Mullin said he founded the center after seeing how many more opportunities there were for students in Baltimore County.
"What western Pennsylvania is to football, the Baltimore area is to competitive robotics," Mullin said.
For Harrell, he says he's glad he decided to sign up for the robotics team three years ago.
"I enjoyed it, and I stayed with it. It's a great experience," he said.