Even a Fire Can’t Bring Down This High School Robotics Team

It was just after midnight on Thursday, December 8 when the fire alarms at San Luis Obispo High School in California started going off. By the time the firefighters arrived, the school’s computer lab was engulfed in flames. Within hours, three former students were arrested for setting the fire. Firefighters smothered the blaze, but the damage was already done. The computer lab, and everything in it, was destroyed.

“There were holes burned in the roof,” said computer science and repair teacher Jan Fetcho. She’s been teaching at SLO High for more than two decades. The morning after the fire, she picked through what was left of her lab. “Some of it didn’t look too bad, but the smell was horrible. They gave me a hard hat and let me inside. There was water and the leftovers of foam on the floor, inches deep in places. Everything inside was devastated.”

Amid the wreckage of melted computers and scorched chairs, a half dozen robots lie cremated. The robotics team—led by Fetcho—had been working on them for months. All the parts the team had fundraised to buy over the years, most of the trophies and banners students had earned, all the work they’d put into those robots … gone. Up in smoke.

“The unfortunate thing is while we can replace computers, we can replace desks, we can replace those things, but we can’t replace some of that work that those students put together,” Anthony Palazzo of San Luis Coastal School District told the local paper.

The robotics team was supposed to take some of those robots to a competition the same weekend. But, as staff sorted through smoke-blackened remains of the computer lab—or as students call it, Room 307—it became clear there wasn’t much left to salvage. All told, the robotics team lost around $30,000 worth of equipment. And the school itself suffered nearly $750,000 worth of losses and damages.

The computer lab was more than just a classroom for a lot of students. It was a hangout, a workshop, a refuge, a place where teens had all the tools and the support to build whatever their imaginations conjured up. The school’s tech club had just purchased parts to make an arcade cabinet for a new project: a computer that would play arcade games. Students met there at lunch and after school to play board games and work on projects—like repairs.

Even though the lab has been gutted by fire, you can’t destroy a place like that. It was a second home to a lot of students. It has a spirit that can’t be burned down.

“Over the years I have had many students go on to careers in the tech field, who first got their start in Room 307,” Fetcho said.

Insurance money should cover the damages to the building, but the process will take time. The community rallied in an effort to get the robotics team and students back to the business of building, competing, and learning. A GoFundMe campaign was launched for the SLO High Robotics team with a fundraising goal of $7,500. In 24 hours, the campaign nearly doubled its goal. And the number keeps growing.

GoFundMe campaign for San Luis Obispo high school robotics team
The GoFundMe campaign for San Luis High School’s Robotics team raised over $25,000 in the days after the fire. Image: Screenshot of GoFundMe campaign.

“My time on that team and in that place helped me become the person I am today,” wrote one supporter on the GoFundMe campaign page. “I am forever grateful to Mrs. Fetcho for her work as a teacher and an advisor to the robotics club and for providing a space that welcomed everyone.”

“The Tech Club was one of my best memories of high school, and Mrs. Fetcho was one of the best teachers of my experience. I happily donate to keep the club alive,” another wrote.

“Jan’s computer room is our grand-son’s second home. Good-luck,” yet another supporter wrote.

The support has been overwhelming, SLO High parent volunteer Susan Coward told us. “I have to tell you how stoked the kids are with the support,” she said. “Not just because of the vital program-saving financial support, but because it proves that people care about the nerds. They often wonder [if people care about them], as I’m sure you know. My son is involved in both robotics and tech club, and has spent countless hours in Room 307. He and his friends are feeling both the loss and the love from the community quite strongly right now.”

And so is Jan Fetcho. “I am overwhelmed by their generosity and commitment to see the programs continue,” she said.

With the help of the community, the school’s robotics team isn’t giving up. They’re rebuilding their robots for competitions in January “like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” Fetcho said.

San Luis Obispo is iFixit’s hometown. We’ve supported SLO High’s lab in the past—and we will continue to do so in the aftermath of the fire. iFixit has pledged to match $5,000 of the GoFundMe donations. If you want to help get the robotics team back on its feet, you can donate to the GoFundMe campaign here.