Justin Jackson and Marquis Thomas

For Justin Jackson and Marquis Thomas, getting into robotics led to a lot more than a gold medal in their state SkillsUSA competition. It gave them a whole new outlook on education.

“Just as long as I was passing the class, that’s all that mattered to me” until mentor and robotics coach Robert Lorenzo “changed my mindset,” says Thomas (right). “He always told me I have so much potential. My mom and the rest of my family told me the exact same thing, but I didn’t believe them. It took someone that only knew me for a couple years.”

Jackson (left) agrees. “It shook up my whole perspective of high school. It gave me a lot of opportunities to express myself in different ways, using the robot.”

After two years in the program at Essex County Schools of Technology in West Caldwell, N.J., they’ve seen their GPAs jump a full point. Now both seniors aspire to go to college for engineering.

“Growing up in Newark, the stereotype that’s pushed onto you is, music or being some type of an athlete is the only way to seriously be successful or make a name for yourself,” Thomas notes. “Mr. Lorenzo said, ‘Yes, that’s a way to go, but look at this huge amount of money that you’re just leaving behind [as an engineer].’ ”

Jackson and Thomas were the first in their state to compete in Robotics: Urban Search and Rescue at the SkillsUSA Championships. “Over time, I had to learn how he operates things, what are his flaws and what’s his strength,” Jackson says, adding teamwork skills to what they’ve learned individually in class.