Last year, a handful of Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School students solicited their school board for a robotics team. Last week, that team competed in FIRST Robotics' World Championship in St. Louis.
From baby steps to a quantum leap, Ironclad has laid the foundation for BBCHS' future in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The rookie team had its sights set on making the world championship from the beginning. It didn't even have a robot when coaches Mark and Lisa Hampton made that seemingly distant dream its goal.
"A year ago, I thought we would be doing pretty well if we put together a robot that drives and does something," Mark Hampton said. "But Lisa believed we would be ready to compete right away.
"We had a good combination of mentors who inspired the kids and stepped aside, and our kids were ambitious to try new things. They accepted mistakes and learned."
Where they began
BBCHS' math team was sitting at a McDonald's after a competition two years ago, when Mark Hampton asked student Frankie Ann Schripsena if she wanted to pursue a career in mathematics. To Hampton's surprise, Schripsena said she wanted to pursue robotics and wished the school had a program.
Six months later, Hampton and BBCHS Superintendent Scott Wakeley toured Olivet Nazarene University's new engineering facility. The next day, Hampton decided to gauge the students' interest in robotics. About 50 students signed on.
A group of students stood before the BBCHS board of education in April 2015, asking board members to let them start a program. Their wish came true.
Students immediately searched for sponsors in the community and found several companies that were willing to lend them mentors with professional experience. Oswego High School's robotics team also stepped up to guide Ironclad last summer.
Before they knew it, the students were running the team similar to a business — from marketing to building. Ironclad went on to qualify for the world championship by being one of the top rookie teams at an Illinois regional competition.
About 900 teams from 39 countries competed last week in the world championship. Some were sponsored by big-name companies, such as NASA, and had hotels booked three years in advance.
But Ironclad didn't fret. Instead, the students saw the well-established teams as models of what they can become.
"We were a rookie team, and we tried as hard as we could to get to worlds," junior Anthony Nepomuceno said. "Throughout the season, we rejoiced in failure and pushed past adversity to get there.
"So when we arrived, we saw all these other teams as humans. There was a mutual admiration between us and them that helped us learn and build personal connections."
Ironclad competed in 10 competitions during the world championship meet. The students' foreign language skills kicked in when they communicated with a team from Mexico in Spanish.
Ironclad ultimately watched the playoffs from the bleachers, already coming up with ideas for how they can improve next year.
It took a community to raise the rookie team of 50 students to FIRST Robotics' largest stage.
E2i pledged several volunteers before the school board approved Ironclad. Olivet offered up some space in its engineering building.
Along the way, the team gained mentors from CSL Behring, Valley Glass, Nucor Steel, Precision Piping, Olivet and F.E. Moran. The BBCHS Academic Foundation also stepped up as a major sponsor.
"All of these professionals came in and became very personal with us," junior Rebecca Musgrave said. "That gave us a lot of confidence, which set the tone for the whole season.
"Our morale was really high because mentors, sponsors and other teams kept our spirits high when things didn't go as expected. They helped us find solutions and stay on our feet."
The student-mentor relationship gave students a hands-on experience similar to an internship. Students not only used knowledge they gained from the classroom, but also the practical experiences they had with their mentors.
"We wanted to get involved with these kids right away so that they would stay in our community," said Theresa Ledesma, E2i's director of business development. "Their success is going to pour into this community because the community invested in them."
That investment helped Ironclad qualify for the world championship as a highly-ranked rookie team in Illinois.
After a successful rookie team, Ironclad will continue to focus on its community outreach.
The team wants to establish a pipeline of talent and interest by forming local Lego robotics teams. It also is lining up appearances at community events.
Its ultimate goal is to redevelop STEM culture by bring in members of different backgrounds. The team will heavily recruit students from minority populations and promote females in STEM.
It already has accomplished its goal of developing STEM culture at BBCHS, which will add an AP computer science course next year.
"I think our team showed that anything is possible this year," Nepomuceno said. "We all had our own abilities and talents, but we didn't know how to channel them into what we needed to accomplish. Our mentors channeled those abilities into a goal and allowed us to drive ourselves toward success.
"Going into this year, we were trying to figure out how to establish the precedent for this program. We met our goal, and now we have to keep the program moving. That's our focus."