Indiana kids defy the odds on their school robotics team

INDIANAPOLIS -- When Pleasant Run Elementary in Indianapolis decided to launch a competitive robotics team last fall, coach Lisa Hopper said she had one goal and one goal only: to avoid humiliation.

"I said, 'I hope we don't embarrass ourselves, and if that happens I'll be a happy coach,'" Hopper said.

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Lisa Hopper

CBS News

The school is in a high-poverty neighborhood, so the kids don't have many resources. And her 4th grade team didn't know the first thing about robotics.

Nevertheless, the Pleasant Run Pantherbots began studying and then designing a robot to complete the assigned task. In the beginning there were a few successes -- and a lot of failures.

Although the kids say the biggest disappointment had nothing to do with their robot. At one of their first matches, an adult in the crowd heckled a Hispanic teammate, told him to "go back to Mexico."

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The Pleasant Run Pantherbots team

CBS News

"I don't know why they did that," the boy said.

"That was actually kind of hurtful for them to say that," said a student.

The incident was demoralizing, but far from debilitating. In fact, it only made the kids work harder and stay after school later.

"I was so mad 'cause that happened, but I was actually kind of glad because we beat their butts," one of the kids said.

That's a poetic way of saying they channeled that insult into a victory at the city tournament. They went on to win at state, too. And just last week competed in the world championships in Louisville, Kentucky. 

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The Pantherbots at the national championship

CBS News

They didn't win it all, but they made it to the final round. Hardly the humiliation their coach had feared.

"They started with nothing and created something fantastic," Hopper said.

The kids are all now talking about technical careers. Someday they may build incredible robots. But for now their greatest contribution remains purely human.

"All of our team, everybody in America, it's gotta be mixed. It's a melting pot," one said.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, email us: OnTheRoad@cbsnews.com. 

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.