(TNS) — LAKE BALBOA — A powerful earthquake sends tremors rippling across the San Fernando Valley, toppling buildings, sparking fires and trapping thousands of residents among the rubble.
But instead of police and firefighters picking through sharp-edged debris, an army of robots is dispatched to search and rescue. At least that was the exercise last week at the first Los Angeles magnet school for robotics.
"I like working on this stuff," said Jessica Carrillo, 11, of Van Nuys, after tinkering with the wheels of her small off-road bot, which she'd programmed for search and rescue at Mulholland Robotics STEAM Magnet. "Because in the future, we're going to invent robots that can do incredible, wonderful things. Maybe they can do firemen's jobs. Policemen's jobs. Anything."
For the past decade, robotics have been the rage across the Los Angeles Unified School District, with students from schools that included Haddon STEAM Academy in Pacoima, Millikan Middle School, an affiliated charter in Sherman Oaks, and James Monroe High School in North Hills entering and winning top robotics contests.
But this fall a high-tech arms race to boost academic enrollment grew one notch hotter when William Mulholland Middle School in Lake Balboa opened the district's first robotics magnet school.
The Mulholland Robotics STEAM Magnet has drawn nearly 200 students taught by a half-dozen science and math teachers armed with more than 300 small wheeled robots.
Its robotics gurus hope to make it a West Valley hub for robotics training, research and competition for the next generation of robotics engineers poised to develop such devices as self-driving vacuum cleaners that travel across local living-room floors, self-driving big rigs that travel down local freeways, self-screwing sheetrock hangers, and self-operating hospital surgeons.
Not only will its sixth-grade Cascaders program work on self-driving aquatic submarines, land-based cars, then airborne drones to soar over its horticultural gardens, its administrators say, students will soon compete with 16 middle schools in the LAUSD's Local District Northwest, each with in-school and after-school robotics classes. By the end of the year, administrators say, it will be the first district in the nation with a fully integrated robotics program.
And they will be on track to study robotics at Reseda or Monroe high schools and at Cal State Northridge.
"They're looking at robotics taking over most of the jobs that people do today," said Mulholland Principal Greg Vallone, standing in an empty classroom being converted into a robotic submarine lab, with water tanks. "These kids are going to be the leaders of tomorrow. We're going to give these kids the future today. I'm passionate. We have a faculty that supports it. We're going to revolutionize this area."
The area, formerly part of Van Nuys, once filled a 53-year-old junior high school named after the Dublin-born water chief who a century ago had famously unleashed a flood of riches upon Los Angeles, with more than 1,800 students.
But with enrollment down by nearly half, the district had to draw more kids.
Enter Vallone, a gray-bearded school administrator with a penchant for crisp French cuffs who began his LAUSD career 42 years ago as a custodian while in graduate school.
Since then, the former teacher turned principal has become a magnet maven, having set up magnet schools that included computer programming, law and government, and police and fire, from San Fernando to North Hills.
After taking the helm at Mulholland five years ago, he set up Mulholland Junior Police Academy, the nation's first middle-school magnet for future cops, who greet school visitors each day by the school gate.
For a while, he entertained the notion of launching a film and TV magnet for careers in Hollywood. Then he stumbled upon a comment by computer mogul Bill Gates about the future of robotics: "Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry."
After a collaborative huddle with LAUSD administrators and school faculty, a new robotics program was born. Last year, former board member Tamar Galatzan donated $150,000 for a robotics lab. This year, after three district attendance awards, the Mulholland robotics science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics magnet became official.
Mullholland Middle School's enrollment has climbed back to 1,250 students, with its robotics magnet expected to nearly double next year.
"The enthusiasm and the excitement that these kids are showing, when they're operating the stuff they build," said Joel Domine, coordinator of the robotics program. "They built it. They drive it. They use it. And it's awesome."
Among a series of robotics classrooms, sixth-grade teachers, including Mary Lewis and Dan Lua, coax students to conduct and then analyze wheeled robot assignments, such as traffic and search-and-rescue missions. Science students program the robots for specific tasks. Math students then compute their speed, trajectory and other data.
"I'm really excited," said Dean Gendernalik, 11, of West Hills, taking a break from search-and-rescue operations with his foot-long car. "It took me forever to build. The coding didn't quite work out. It took me three times and I got it.
"I love robotics," he added. "Always loved robotics. You can take a bunch of seemingly random parts, and put them into something that works. I hope to be an engineer."
©2016 the Daily News (Los Angeles), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.