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Steven Lugo's Story:
From Gang-Leader To Robotics Captain

Steven LugoSteven Lugo, 18, is a new member of NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC) team. Wang Government Services hired Steven to add his robotics skills to ARC’s cadre of experts, and his credentials are impressive: Captain of the first-place and second-place teams in the 1999 NASA/FIRST Western Regional Robotics Competition (which also took home honors from the National Robotics Championship); and winner of the All Star [robotics] Rookie Award, the Honeywell Leadership in Control Award, and the National Robotics Championship Judges Award for Achievement and Innovation. In his spare time, Steven visits jails to talk to youths-at-risk about getting out of gangs, and he helps support his younger sister with his earnings. So, what makes Steven Lugo different from other community-minded young men?

In The Beginning

Travel back in time from 1999 to 1995 and meet Steven Lugo, age 14: expelled from San Jose High School because of low grades and excessive unexcused absences; full-time gang member, car thief, drug dealer, and street fighter; stabbed four times, twice in the head, in a fight he lost. Meet Steven’s mother, Linda: shot six times at point blank range in 1988 by Steven’s father, now serving a life sentence in Soledad Prison. And, meet Steven’s friends: members of the notorious gang XIV Nortano of east-side San Jose.

In late 1995, district administration authorities placed Steven Lugo in the Broadway Continuation High School, a school of last resort for a few hundred students like himself, supervised by armed San Jose Police Officers. Steven knew this was his last chance to complete high school and turn his life around.

Fortunately for Steven, FIRST and NASA were there to help.

A Winning Partnership

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing student interest in science, technology, and mathematics. In part, FIRST accomplishes this by supporting and sponsoring youth activities and national events that give students hands-on exposure to applications of engineering and science. These activities include an annual robot competition for high school youth, a table-top program for middle school youth, and a teacher development program. And, these programs are all possible and successful because of FIRST’s working partnerships with Federal and local governments, school systems, universities, and private businesses.

NASA’s primary missions also include science and technology outreach and awareness, and NASA’s Strategic Plan supports expanding Agency partnerships with private and academic organizations like FIRST that promote science and technology education.

Promoting student interest in careers in science, engineering, and mathematics also is critical to the survival of the U.S. civil space program. According to Dave Lavery, Program Executive for Solar and Planetary Exploration, "If NASA is able to support 1000 high school students per year through programs that increase their interest in science and technology, and just 5% of them continue all the way through graduate school in a robotics-related discipline, that is… 50 new robotics experts each year that will become available to help the space program." "[In addition]," continues Lavery, "every company that manufactures a product, every company that sells or resells something manufactured in this country, every assembly plant, retailer, repair shop, and production facility in this country is going to have exactly the same concern over the next 10 years. [So] it is in the best interests of all…to support programs which inspire young students to enter technical fields."

With this singleness of purpose and commitment, a partnership between NASA and FIRST was inevitable.

NASA has been a growing partner in the FIRST programs since they joined forces in 1995. Starting with one team that year sponsored by the Lewis (now John Glenn) Research Center, NASA is now the largest single organization participating in the FIRST program. In 1999, NASA sponsored 31 teams of 1100 students nation-wide. NASA funding of this initiative increased from $70,000 in 1995 to $575,000 in 1999, and the projected Agency contribution in 2000 will be $1,100,000. But, even more important are the more than 200 volunteer hours each involved NASA engineer devotes to sharing knowledge, experience, and insights with these students.

NASA Takes Another Partner

NASA’s specific involvement with the Broadway Continuation High School began in an unusual way - - with a class in Tae Kwon Do. In April 1997, Mark Leon, Manager of the NASA Learning Technologies Project at ARC, approached Broadway Continuation High about a different kind of partnership. He wanted to volunteer his lunch hours to teach martial arts. Leon had two goals: to offer the students disciplined coping skills and to identify the school’s best students to groom for Summer Student Positions at ARC. Within the first two months, Leon achieved both his goals, and he serendipitously hit upon the opportunity to add Broadway Continuation High to the NASA/FIRST partnership.

During the summer of 1997, Mark Leon learned about Dave Lavery’s FIRST projects at ARC, including "BOTBALL." Leon was impressed and felt certain that Broadway Continuation High School students would benefit from this program. His office paid the school’s registration fee and recruited the volunteer services of ARC engineers Steve Kyramarious and Robert Holmes. And, despite the challenges and difficult environment, Broadway students embraced the program and competed successfully in their first Bay Area robotics BOTBALL tournament.

Lots of Happy Endings

And, that brings us back to Steven Lugo. Steven completed his freshman year at Broadway Continuation High with "D" average. As a sophomore, he heard about the NASA robotics program and wanted to join the Broadway school team. But, team membership was denied to students with lower than a 3.0 GPA. That was just the motivation Steven needed. By the end of the year, Steven had a 3.0 average. By the end of his junior year, Steven had a 4.0 GPA and was Captain of the Broadway Continuation High School Robotics Team. The rest is history.

Today, Steven Lugo is leading a different kind of life. He's even having his 29 gang-related tattoos removed by laser treatment, and he is looking forward to college and a fulfilling career. "The NASA Robotics Project has opened up new doors for me," said Steven in a recent interview. "I am not proud of my past, but if it wasn’t for my past, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I can never go back."

To learn more about the FIRST programs and accomplishments, visit their Internet site.

For more information about the ARC Learning Technology Project, visit their Internet site and, or call Mark Leon at (650) 604-6498.


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