From the outside, it is an unfriendly, unremarkable warehouse that hardly merits a second glance.

But behind the white, unmarked door of the Powelton Village building, a freezing room that is home to the Atomic Robotics 4-H Club buzzed on a recent school night with the sounds of motors whirring, a heater sputtering to life, and table saws interrupting discussions on whether the computer coding would work this time.

Every inch of giant whiteboard adorning the concrete walls was covered in equations. Smells of sawdust and spaghetti mingled as a dinner break began in a circle of mismatched chairs dubbed the "living room."

"You should have seen this place when we first got here - there was nothing," said Emmett Neyman, 15, a Masterman High School freshman and one of 37 students who proudly showed off the eclectic warehouse.

Founded over the summer, Atomic Robotics meets four times a week, aided by 17 adult mentors, to work on building a robot that can shoot as many basketballs and score as many points as possible in two minutes and 15 seconds.

The group is part of a nationwide competition organized by FIRST, a nonprofit that sets the rules and guidelines for the contest each year, backed by corporate sponsors and notable celebrities, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, of the Black Eyed Peas, and crowd favorite Stephen Colbert.

On Wednesday night, though most of the other juniors in the group had chosen to attend a college fair, Taylor Washington's priorities took her first to Warren Street.

"I was kind of conflicted," Washington, 16, said as she asked one of the adult mentors whether she should stay or go. She eventually left for the fair, but not before explaining why this student club was more than just an after-school activity.

"We hear on the radio that there is a lack of engineers in the world, so we're prepared for that," she said, adding that her job as a computer programmer on the team was like "what I'm doing in class in real life."

Washington echoed the concerns of companies around the country that have observed a drop-off in the number of U.S. students graduating with engineering degrees.

Apple executives recently estimated in the New York Times that it would take the company nine months to find enough qualified engineers to staff a plant built in America. In China, the company found more than enough engineers in 15 days.

Though the West Philadelphia warehouse is worlds away from the monolithic Boeing headquarters in Chicago, the importance of the students' endeavor did not go unnoticed. Boeing, along with JC Penney, NextFab, and the ODM Group, is one of the group's platinum sponsors, meaning it has donated at least $5,000.

"As long as there's a demand for engineers, the companies will figure out how to preserve their pipeline," said JJ Biel-Goebel, a Boeing aerospace engineer and Atomic Robotics' founder. He said U.S. defense companies need more qualified Americans because they cannot hire foreigners due to the security-clearance process for working on secret and top-secret projects.

The growth of Atomic Robotics, from a chance meeting between Biel-Goebel and Masterman math teacher Kate Smith, is all the more remarkable as Philadelphia School District budget cuts have forced the demise of 15 similar clubs in the city.

Biel-Goebel attributed the success in part to the group's mentors, ranging from professionals to local college students, but especially to the tenacious energy of the club's high school members.

In the first week of the club's existence, students planned a bake sale at Masterman, targeting lunch periods that they knew had the most people and that would yield the most profit. The sale raised $400 and was quickly followed with a pretzel sale and subsequent monthly bake sales.

"I don't know how I would have done this in high school," Biel-Goebel said, adding that the students all have the "I-want-to-beat-you" bug.

Atomic Robotics even has its own public relations team from one of its sponsors. Jacqui Seidel and Stephanie Schneider of the ODM Group were impressed when the students contacted them, and they began working with the club in December.

"These are the kids that are going to be taking our jobs in five years," Seidel said.

Despite the 15-to-20-hour-per week time commitment, the students relish the opportunity to work in the warehouse when classes end for the day.

"It's a really big escape," sophomore Max Weber, 16, said. "So far, I haven't had a point where I said I don't want to be here."

"The first time I heard about it, it was just a sheet on a wall," junior Mikelanxhelo Novruzaj, 16, said. Now Novruzaj and Weber are part of the team that gathered Wednesday night around a wooden prototype of its robot as the robot successfully shot basketballs across the room.

Biel-Goebel said the club planned to continue after its rookie year, living and dying by its own energy, so long as its members manage to stay intact.

"No one's chopped any fingers off yet," he said, crossing his own.

Contact staff writer Liz Gormisky at 215-854-5626 or