Honor student at low-income DeKalb school starts STEM robotics team

Quan Usher is the captain of the Columbia High School VEX robotics team, which made it to the county championship despite limited resources.

Credit: Photo by Deanna L. Cauthen

Credit: Photo by Deanna L. Cauthen

Quan Usher is the captain of the Columbia High School VEX robotics team, which made it to the county championship despite limited resources.

Beneath Quan Usher's unpretentious demeanor is a STEM robotics student leader with a determination.

Prior to Quan attending DeKalb's Columbia High School, there was no robotics program, but Quan helped to change that. Quan, now a junior, started the VEX robotics program last year.

"We are a part of the VEX Robotics Competition. It's robotics on a smaller scale," said Quan, who is the lead designer for the team as well as the marketing and communications coordinator of the STEM robotics team.

He is also a member of the Fernbank LINKS FIRST FRC robotics team, which builds larger robots.

Although STEM, which includes robotics, is a popular component in education for many students, the reality is that there is still a huge gap in accessing this kind of programming for schools in lower income, economically challenged neighborhoods.

Columbia High School, a Title 1/Priority school, as well as many other Title 1 schools don't have STEM programs because they lack funding and support.

"The problem is statewide, but the problems are deeper and more myriad at the schools in minority areas. There's a huge difference in the quality of education that the kids are getting in south DeKalb than the kids are getting in north DeKalb," said Angela Paul, who is owner and CEO of Math Plus Educational Services and who has tutored high school students in the metro-Atlanta area for more than 25 years.

"Our first season," Quan said, "was our rookie season, and we worked with the (limited) equipment we had, and with that ... we made it to the finals of the DeKalb County Championship."

"We were a group of four students when we started," Quan said. "I took on the role of (lead) designer, and I got more people to join and trained them."

The robotics team now has seven members.

But Quan wasn't satisfied with just making it to the county finals. He wanted more for the team.

"We wanted to get better, so (I) and another team member participated in a summer program called Upward Bound. We worked on the robot for the new game that was revealed in April the (entire) summer so that we could get the robot ready when the new school year came around," he said.

"This year, we have maintained a good team. (It was) our second year. We were a lot more experienced, and we had more members and got things done a lot more quickly this year. We had a decent robot that was able to perform well on its own," Quan said.

Hetal Raval, a Columbia High physics teacher and the team's mentor, said: "All these (STEM robotics) students are really talented, and they definitely are going to go far in terms of anything that is related to STEM. They have insight about robotics as a whole — building it, programming it. They are perfectionists."

Although Quan said he is pleased with the team's success over the past year, he is thinking about the future.

"We decided to expand what we're doing, because we need more money for things, so we've started doing fundraising," he said.

"We have a laser engraver at our school ... and what we're doing now is to engrave objects like mirrors and plaques, nameplates, anything you can use a laser on and engrave that for people around the school and in the community, and also raise awareness for our team," he said.

The team has set up a GoFundMe page, too. If you'd like to help them, click here.

Quan said students interested in STEM-related careers should consider joining a robotics team.

"VEX is great because it gives you an introductory understanding of engineering and mechanics as a whole and programming as a language. The programming language used in VEX is also used in many other things," he said. "We are still accepting applications ... ."

In addition to leading the VEX Robotics team, Quan is a member of the National Honor Society, Beta Club and is president of the school's chapter of the Technology Student Association. He said he wants to be an aerospace research technician at NASA and would like to attend Georgia Tech.


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