AS I LISTENED yesterday to NASA's chief technologist talk about the Earth's gravity and the tremendous force it takes for a space vehicle to escape its pull, I wondered whether the teenagers Robert Braun was speaking with saw any parallels in their own lives.
The effervescent Braun - who worked on NASA's Mars Pathfinder - was visiting with the fabulous West Philly Hybrid X Team, comprising students in West Philly High School's Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering.
Braun was invited by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, a huge fan of "the team that knows no ceiling" (and who therefore should share their story with the "federal agency that explores the heavens").
Joining him in the school garage on tiny Hanson Street was state Rep. James Roebuck, another team cheerleader.
And, oh, has this team earned the hoots and hollers.
I've written before about these stupendous kids, who are serious contenders in a $10 million international competition to design and build an affordable, alternative-energy car that gets 100 miles per gallon and can be mass-produced. They also must submit a business plan detailing where and how the car will be made and marketed.
The competition - an almost-three-year odyssey called the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize - will award $5 million for the best four-door economy car; $2.5 million each will go to two winners in a two-seater category. West Philly submitted applications in both classes.
The contest began with 111 contenders from around the globe, including university teams, start-up companies, engineering firms, established automakers, lone entrepreneurs and one hardscrabble, underfunded, inner-city high-school team - West Philly.
After a series of qualifying rounds - the last one took place in April at Michigan International Speedway - only 22 teams remain.
Astonishingly, West Philly is among them, having bested even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (nothing against MIT, but I giggle like a fool every time I think about that).
This month, the team will journey back to Michigan for a 10-day road test meant to "knock out" those whose cars can't meet the prize's grueling performance criteria.
Those who pass the knockout phase will return in July for a final competition.
And in September, when all the poking, prodding and tire-kicking is complete, Progressive will announce its winners.
Not to jinx the West Philly team, but it must be said that editors at Popular Mechanics, which evaluated the finalists' proposals last fall, pegged the kids among the top 10 contestants likely to win. My fingers are crossed so hard, I think I've dislocated my knuckles.
Still, I have to say that I couldn't agree more with Simon Hauger, the team's founder and one of its wonderfully committed teacher/mentors, when he says that, regardless of the outcome, he believes his team has already won.
In one short year, these students have smashed to bits the myth that urban kids from tough circumstances don't have the smarts, the talent, the ability or the fortitude to succeed. They've proven that when good teachers engage the enormous creativity and intellect of chronically underestimated kids, something amazing happens:
They escape the gravitational pull of their circumstances.
The lesson wasn't lost on NASA's Braun, who seemed genuinely delighted to meet the West Philly Hybrid X Team yesterday (and whose mother, coincidentally, is a graduate of the school).
He inspected their cars, answered their questions about careers in technology and offered his reassurance that their learn-by-doing experience is laying bedrock that will support them the rest of their lives.
"Wow," he said, shaking his head at the Ford Focus that the students had retrofitted with a Harley Davidson 1340 motorcycle engine. "They've taken some standard, off-the-shelf technology and reassembled it in a new way that's a real marvel.
"This is what school is supposed to be about," he said - a place where current knowledge is rearranged, reimagined and given new life in the real world.
The notion is so simple, it certainly doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand it.
But it sure was gratifying, hearing one say it.
To check out the amazing cars built by the West Philly Hyrbid X Team, and to meet the staff and students who'll travel to Michigan on June 20, join Mayor Nutter at noon on Wednesday, June 16, for a City Hall pep rally honoring the team.
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