It’s 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday and 17-year-old Maura Barrada sits on an idling bus in her high school’s parking lot — nervous, sleepless and adrenalized.

The big day is finally here: the regional Aerospace Robotics Competition in New Hampshire.

Maura and her senior teammates at Brockton High School — Mya Evans, Lizberte Celestin and Amieya Cudjoe — have logged hundreds of hours together building and flying their drones since October, when the competition began. Maura even skipped her senior prom to focus on the work.

Now 35 drone teams across New England have been winnowed to a handful. And a win for Brockton is far from assured.

The other teams come from suburban districts, some offering aeronautical engineering programs undertake the competition as a classroom project. Others have parents who are engineers or have the time and resources to take them on weekend drone excursions.

The Brockton kids speak multiple languages and have impressive GPAs, but they don’t have those built-in advantages. Quite the opposite. Two live in foster homes. Most know or are related to someone who is incarcerated. Maura lost both a family member and friend in fentanyl deaths.

But on a bus roaring north on the interstate as the sun rises, the Brockton students are focused on the future, and declaring their rightful spot among the next generation of aeronautical engineers.

Maura takes the first seat on the bus behind the driver. Next to her, on a seat all its own is her team’s drone, nicknamed “Frankenstein.”

“I’m just really banking on the fact that we can get that drone up in the air,” she said. “The wind will take us from there.”

Winning will take more than the wind at their back.

Earlier this year, members of the school committee requested the National Guard establish a presence in the Brockton schools, citing rampant student fights, vaping and truancy.

A New York Post article called it “America’s Most Violent High School,” setting off a firestorm of charged commentary on social media, comparing students’ behavior to prisoners and calling the school’s atmosphere a “war zone.”

Gov. Maura Healey denied the military request but offered to pay for a safety audit of the school. A separate audit found that school spending this year will exceed the budget by as much as $25 million.

In the chaotic swirl of events, the drone club met after school daily. During February vacation, they worked six hours a day on their drones. Maura praised her teachers and shrugged off the National Guard request as overblown.

“All these people talk about, ‘Oh, Brockton High’s a fight school. Brockton High’s a horrible school, I would never let my kids go there,’” she said. “It hasn’t gotten to the point where we need the National Guard. It’s just kind of like an empty threat.”

What gets the students’ attention are the drones, which are new and sleek with complex maneuvering systems that resemble gaming consoles.

The team meets in a basement laboratory at the high school, a facility heavy on linoleum that was state of the art in the 1970s. The long counters give the teams space to spread out.

Kids sit at a picnic table working on their drones.
The Brockton Drone Club spent afterschool hours and weekends working on their drones ahead of their major competitions.
Meg Woolhouse GBH News

The school offers an intro to engineering class, but it has no aviation or aeronautical engineering elective, so a tiny nonprofit that started as a financial literacy organization expanded to offer a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs.

The Brockton founder, Cedric Turner, wanted kids to learn about science and technology careers leading to jobs that make “real money.” A hulking former college football player, he said too many students consider sports instead of science as a way out of poverty.

“Education should be ... very very challenging,” he said. “It should be about teaching kids how to solve problems. I always tell them I have learned much much more from losing than I have from winning.”

While the district pays Turner for his efforts, he got MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington involved, too. They donated the drones and recruited two adult aerospace engineers as student mentors.

Sophomore Julian Melendez said the competition looks good on his resume. But he also wished the school offered an aviation engineering program, or better computer science courses. This year, he said his computing teacher didn’t know coding basics.

“He tried his best, but I feel like next time, actually hire someone that knows how to code,” he said.

Students in the class watched YouTube videos about coding instead, he said.

“We learned some stuff from it,” he said.

Freshman Henry Ani scoffed and said he just wanted basics, like bathrooms that are available to students.

“They’re always locked,” he said.

Senior Amieya enters the lab in a flurry. She’s tells her friends she was accepted to Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a full scholarship. Her dream of becoming a mechanical engineer just got one giant step closer, and she felt grateful to the school.

“As much as we were born here, it doesn’t really determine where we’re going,” she said both softly and confidently.

She’ll take that knowledge with her to the drone competition this year. Last year, she heard a competitor refer to their team as the “affirmative action team.”

It made beating them sweet.

The younger students are listening intently, pausing their work. Maura tells them to get back to it. And she reminds them that there are teachers who will go out of their way to help them, just like they have helped her.

“As much as we were born here, it doesn’t really determine where we’re going.”
Mya Evans, Brockton senior

On a Sunday morning in April, the competition is still a month away, and the teams need more practice flying the drones. But the high school isn’t open on Sundays.

They end up finding free space at the Stoughton YMCA and crowd into a teen room used for meetups and kids’ birthday parties.

Maura, dressed all in black down to her Crocs, feels pressure mounting.

“The kids we compete against in these competitions aren’t kids that are taking this as like, ‘Yay, experience!’ No, they are obsessed with drones. They are obsessed with aviation, aerospace. ... They’re going to school — they’re flying for three, four hours a day. So, we come here.”

The group hauls its gear from the school to the space, and spreads out.

Maura worries they’ve spent too much time building the drones and not enough time flying them. Her team made a power move, deciding to fly a drone built from recycled and leftover parts on competition day instead of the one from the $900 kit donated by MIT.

The underclassmen will use the kit, but they’ve got their own challenges. Julian can’t find a ride to practice from Boston. Henry is late because of church. Other teams use 3D printers to make replacement parts, but if anything breaks on their drone, they have to wait three weeks for parts to arrive by mail.

Montserrat vada Diaz-Botello, a junior with a 4.2 GPA, is always there. She sits in a corner, hunched over her team’s drone, for hours plugging away.

When competition day finally arrives, the Brockton team shows up at the venue — Saint Anselm College — nearly two hours before the other teams.

The judges, mostly aerospace engineers at MIT Lincoln Labs, score the students on an oral presentation and how well they execute a series of tasks with a drone in the field.

One includes pre-programming a drone to pick up a ball and drop it in a net. For another, the students must manually pilot their drone to lift a water balloon with a mechanical scoop they’ve designed.

Each challenge wins students points, but the seniors struggle out of the gate. Their drone won’t lift. When it does briefly, the battery pack died. In the same span of time, the pilot for the Belmont team nimbly drops balls one after the other into the net, racking up points.

They know they’re out of the competition before anyone has to say it.

It is the underclassmen who surprise. Julian, who struggled to get enough hours of practice flying, confidently takes up the drone’s controls and flies it with assertive precision while his teammates direct him from the sidelines. A gust of wind makes the drone swerve erratically.

Montserrat clutched her head in her hands.

“I can’t watch,” she shrieked, never once looking away from the action.

The drone bobs and veers then lifts one white whiffle ball into its scoop, made of cardboard and a hair comb. Then the drone lifts and veers again, dramatically dropping the orb into the net.

One ball is enough. There are teams that never reach this milestone on competition day. Julian looks more surprised than anyone.

Shouts and cheers explode. The maneuver lands Brockton’s B team in third place, and earns them a spot competing in the Los Angeles nationals.

A scrappy-looking drone is duct-taped together. It's labeled "FA3RAFANRY," a name printed on a fake Massachusetts license plate.
Brockton’s A team piloted a drone they built with leftover and recycled parts, which they named “Frankenstein.”
Meg Woolhouse GBH News

On the bus ride home to Brockton, nine hours after the competition began, powerful emotions of joy and dejection fill a very tight space.

The veterans Mya, Amieya and Lizberte slump in their seats, and soon fall asleep. Maura sat tall and alert, her jaw tight as she replayed scenes from competition in her mind. 

Did we try hard enough? 

Did we lose the respect of the younger students?

Was all the work worth it?

Just a few steps away, Montserrat, Henry and Julian awkwardly try contain their joy at an unexpected win. But they can’t quite help themselves as they beam for selfies and take turns holding the award.

Turner, who often pays club costs out of pocket, sits in the middle. After the bus enters the Brockton high school parking lot, he announces that he will take all the students to Los Angeles for the finals.

Maura smiles at the thought.

But what keeps her spirits up is knowing that soon she’ll be out of Brockton. “Outta the hood,” as she says.

She’s been accepted to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida next fall.

End note: The Brockton team didn’t place against the 12 teams at the Los Angeles nationals on June 7 and 8. But they’re already strategizing for next year.