Sierra Views: Woods brings science to masses

By Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat May 09, 2013 12:30 pm

Teresa Woods started the robotics club at Summerville High School. Amy Alonzo Rozak / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
Sixteen-year-old Teresa Woods not only loves learning, she’s working hard to ensure other Mother Lode students do too.  

This year the junior at the Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy founded a robotics club, which won a devoted student following. Through it, Woods became part of a movement to boost Tuolumne County’s economy by training young engineers.

The multi-talented Woods also took first place at Tuolumne County’s Poetry Out Loud contest and made it to the third round in the statewide competition, which requires students to recite poems from memory.

Her teachers and friends say she’s a natural leader with a bright future. But the teen is friendly, unassuming and focused on the welfare of others.

“Anything I do, I end up doing for more than the benefit of myself,” Woods said. “I found this robotics idea sitting in my lap…I wanted to share it with the people I knew who would really appreciate it.”

Woods grew up in Groveland and Sonora, the daughter of Trisha and Mitch Woods. She attended the Sierra Waldorf School through eighth grade.

Her interest in technology started young. She admits to having an “obsession with taking apart old cell phones” to see how they work.

Yet her path to academic success came with some early obstacles. She has attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, which her parents realized when she reversed Yosemite’s Half Dome in a clay model she made.

She turns every disadvantage into an advantage. A wrist injury in elementary school kept her right arm in a splint for years. She learned to write with her left hand, decorated her splint as a work of art and took up photography as another artistic outlet.

“I’m really proud of her for being able to overcome those things,” said Trisha Woods. “You learn how to do things differently … when you do find a way, it leads you in other directions.”

Woods now loves reading so much that when she went with her family on a trip to Hawaii a few years ago, she packed her suitcase with 18 books. Her favorites all have to do with espionage.

The robotics club is called “Orange Pi Robearics” after the mathematical constant pi and Summerville High’s school mascot and color. It was born after Woods attended an event at the California Institute of Technology last summer that focused on women in engineering.

There, inspired by NASA engineer Julie Townsend, Woods decided she could help other students — both boys and girls — find their enthusiasm for math. Her face lights up when she describes the subject, her favorite.

“If you sit in most high school math classes, the negative energy is so palpable,” Woods said. “You sit there and go, ‘These kids hate math.’”

Since students ask math teachers why they even need to know the material, Woods knew they would benefit from using it to build things. 

She persuaded her math teacher Richard Krueger, who taught her “Honors Geometry and Design” class, to be a mentor for a club that would enter robot-building competitions.

The results were beyond anyone’s expectations. A group of about 10 students spent hours after school this year, plus entire Saturdays, building a robot they christened “Norman.”

Norman, modeled after the Mars Rover, is programmed to retrieve rings from a plastic container and place them on pegs. “He” has wheels, too, and can be controlled wirelessly.

He cost roughly $4,000 to build — paid for by a grant from the Sonora-based technology company Front Porch, an anonymous donor and other local businesses.

Norman traveled with the students to two contests for the international FIRST Robotics Competition, with FIRST standing for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science in Technology.”

One contest took place in Daly City, where the students’ obvious enthusiasm helped them win two awards and advance to an event in Carson City, Nev.

“They were just, of course, blown away with this group of kids and how they handled themselves,” Krueger said. “The judges were telling me on the side how impressed they were with them.”

Tuolumne County is equally impressed with the robotics club. This spring, the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority gave the students an “Achievement Award” and intends to become their major sponsor.  

Robots are taking over the Woodses’ home, too, where a renovated room has become what the students call the “Robot Room” for building. 

Now students are spending every day after school in the Woods family’s garage, constructing a float for the Mother Lode Roundup Parade on Saturday. It will feature a giant orange pyramid with Norman rotating on top, an announcement that robots are here for good.

“We want to tell people this is something cool, this is where the future is heading, and we want to be a part of it,” Woods said.

The go-getter hopes to start a second robotics club at Summerville for younger high schoolers. Her leadership philosophy can best be summarized in three words: “We’re doing this.”

The end of the school year finds her rushing between activities with barely any time to rest.

Within the past two weeks, she sang in choir performances for both her church and school, built a Go-Kart for a physics assignment, took the SAT college admissions test and worked as a crew member for Sierra Repertory Theater.

One recent morning, she was so tired that she slept through three alarms. Trisha Woods said many of her peers are in the same predicament.

“I think kids these days are working extra hard,” she said. “They’re doing their schoolwork, they’re doing extracurriculars, they’re doing their community service, and just really trying to make a difference in the world.”

Teresa Woods doesn’t intend to slow down. She’s weighing several options for her summer and her future, since she’s interested in so many subjects.

“I find that such a blessing, which really makes me able to keep all my doors open,” Woods said. “It’s really nice but it’s also kind of not, because I can’t decide on anything.”

She can count on one thing: She’s helped create a legacy at her school and town.

“For her age, I’m just so impressed with what she’s been able to do,” Krueger said. “She’s stuck with it, and she’s extremely motivated. She’s going to get some incredible recommendations from me for colleges next year.”