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By Jeff Howe

GENRE: Family

A middle-school robotics team gives a smart-but-shy eighth grade girl a chance to learn self-confidence, and her coach an opportunity to heal the wounds left by his own mentor--who coaches a rival team.


For the first fifteen seconds of eighth grade, ZOE expects this year to be as dull as the last. Then her new friend NISHA introduces her to Robot League, where teams of kids program robots they build from plastic "Bricko" construction sets. Every year the league tests robots against a new tabletop course of obstacles, puzzles and traps.

The two girls next recruit WILL, home-schooled author of a popular social media plug-in app. Will's grad-school brother DART volunteers to coach the new team—Robo4ce. He won Robot League championships himself as a kid on Ton of Bricks, the team of the ruthless Coach KANG.
Kang never forgave Dart for turning down her offer of an internship, and she vows to put him in his place. She forces her current team captain TRIPP to use her company's high-tech gadgets to spy on Robo4ce's progress. In response, Will secretly uses his app to monitor Ton of Bricks' communications.
At first there's not much to concern Kang. Although this year's theme is "Robots vs. Zombies," Robo4ce's robot spends as much time breaking things as it does rescuing mini-figs on the course. Dart remains patient, which pays off when the team finally clicks the week before the state tournament. Even so, Zoe frets about pulling her weight compared to experts like Nisha and Will.
Tripp invites Zoe to join him backstage at a Mythbusters-esque show the night before the tournament, courtesy of passes from Kang. Tripp likes Zoe (and vice versa), but he fears Kang more. In an unguarded moment, Zoe reveals the score Robo4ce expects to get the next day: just higher than Ton of Bricks' score, thanks to Will's eavesdropping.
When Kang finds out, she realizes they've been hacked. In a late-night confrontation in her office, she threatens Dart: if he doesn't make sure Robo4ce loses, she'll sic the Feds on Will for cyberterror. Dart wavers until she mentions taking over the team herself. Willing to take the fall rather than let Kang get near them, he walks out. Enraged, Kang calls security. Dart is lucky to end up in the hospital from his asthma and not bullet wounds. Even that's enough to imperil Robo4ce's chances, since coaches must sign in their teams.
A contrite Will manages to rig their robot to copy Dart's signature remotely. Kang wants to object, but Tripp rebels, preferring to beat Robo4ce honestly. The lead seesaws between Robo4ce and Ton of Bricks all day. Zoe proves her intellectual and ethical worth when she comes up with an innovative last-second move that ties the match, then convinces Nisha to lend Ton of Bricks a critical piece when their robot breaks.

Robo4ce wins the tiebreaker. Kang complains, citing Robo4ce's knowledge of what Ton of Bricks' score would be, but Tripp points out he tweeted the number last night. Humiliated, Kang departs (with an assist from their malfunctioning robot). Nisha, impressed by Tripp's ability to fake a timestamp on a tweet, asks him if he'd like to switch teams next year. Zoe, impressed by him standing up to his coach, forgives him, and implies she might consider another date...after the nationals.


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