Humans of Harker: Trailblazing the way

Robert Zhang navigates the terrains of robotics, hiking and more


Jessica Tang

“The main [draw of hiking] is disconnecting from whatever’s going on. I usually think about how I’m doing and reflect on how I’ve changed recently compared to before and also on any specific goals I should work on. There’s a lot of thoughtfulness while I hike, and I like enjoying the views, which are amazing,” Robert Zhang (12) said.

Looking for a hiking trail recommendation? Robert Zhang’s (12) got your back. He frequents Bay Area trails Mission Peak, Vista Point and Saratoga Springs, and, further north, Mount St. Helena and Mount Wittenberg. He’s also backpacked 40 miles through the Grand Canyon, ventured 50 miles through the Bryce Canyon, Escalante and Arches National Parks and hiked 55 miles through Kings Canyon National Park.

What first sparked Robert’s love for the outdoors, though, was a camping trip in elementary school with his best friend to Santa Cruz. The natural beauty and the serenity and calmness of his surroundings led to a newfound appreciation for nature and an interest in Boy Scouts.

Following this trip, Robert convinced his father to let him join Boy Scouts. He began as a Cub Scout in second grade and, within four years, was promoted to a Boy Scout. Eventually, Robert’s dedication to the organization led him to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest in the Boy Scouts program.

Through Boy Scouts, Robert discovered his love for hiking. He has since embarked on several backpacking trips to numerous National Parks. For Robert, hiking provides an escape from the chaos of everyday life.  

“The main [draw of hiking] is disconnecting from whatever’s going on,” Robert said. “I usually think about how I’m doing and reflect on how I’ve changed recently compared to before and also on any specific goals I should work on. There’s a lot of thoughtfulness while I hike, and I like enjoying the views, which are amazing.”

While hiking brings Robert a sense of inner peace, he also recognizes the physical challenges that come with it. The rough terrain, steep inclines and long hours of trekking require exceptional endurance and strength. For close friend Johnathan Mo (12), Robert’s commitment to the outdoors is part of what sets him apart as a person.

“He is one of the few people who enjoy nature for nature,” Johnathan said. “He’s accomplished some incredible feats, like swimming halfway across the San Francisco Bay and going on 10-mile-long hikes, and I find that really unique and impressive. His constant exploration of nature really makes him stand out.”

From the various tasks he completed as a Boy Scout, Robert has learned essential survival skills such as first aid training and pioneering. Most importantly, the program offered opportunities to work with other scouts in a patrol, providing a platform for him to hone his leadership and communication abilities. These skills proved valuable in another area of his life: robotics.

“Having a small patrol definitely helped me communicate and work with other people, which is pretty crucial in our robotics environment,” Robert said. “It definitely helped the team’s chemistry when I was on my robotics team and also helped me take more initiative for the team.”

Robert first started competing in robotics in eighth grade after his classmate introduced him to the field, and chose to continue it all the way until junior year. Although the pandemic prevented him from completing his rookie season, he remained passionate about robotics, driven by the excitement of bringing his ideas to life.

“Although our season was cut short and we couldn’t make it to the state championships, robotics was a new activity that was really interesting because I loved trying to build something from my imagination and seeing how it worked,” Robert said. “As a smaller and new team, we were more easily discouraged. Even then, we had a pretty good rookie season.”

Robert’s success as a rookie in robotics stems in part from his ability to collaborate with others and willingness to learn. Though not directly involved in robotics with Robert, close friend Grant Sims (12) has noticed these qualities in Robert through their collaboration in research.

“In every situation that he is in, he’s always energetic and happy, and that is super contagious,” Grant said. “I always enjoy being around him, and he’s someone that makes everyone around him feel better. He always tries to be optimistic and is always willing to help.”

Entering sophomore year, Robert had the opportunity to collaborate with older, more experienced teammates in robotics. Yet, his team encountered a difficult mountain to climb: the Battle of the Bay robotics tournament. Robert and his team initially set their sights on taking the top spot at the tournament and directly qualifying for the state championship, but right before they were able to progress to the top seed, their robot malfunctioned in the middle of a match.  

I was devastated,” Robert said. “We had put in so much hard work and effort into our robot, and now it seemed like it was all for nothing. After that, I was really discouraged. My teammates held a similar sentiment and began coming to fewer practices, discouraging our team morale.”

Despite the setbacks, Robert remained determined to turn things around and lead his team to the state championship.

“All the effort and belief in our robot pushed me even harder to come back and win what was rightfully ours,” Robert said. “I was determined to prove to everyone that we had what it took to be an exceptional rookie team, and I was not going to let one big mistake stand in my way. We managed to qualify for the state championship later in the season.”

Though he no longer competes in robotics himself, Robert’s passion for the field has not waned. He now channels his expertise into mentoring younger students, guiding them through their journey in robotics. 

“Although I stopped after I got into senior year, I am still open to volunteering and mentoring the newer students,” Robert said. “I especially want to help middle schoolers grow their passions for robotics.”

Robert’s dedication to helping others extends to his friendships as well. Having known Robert since middle school, Johnathan has witnessed his growth over the course of their friendship.

“I remember in middle school, he would care a lot for his friends and bring people lollipops,” Johnathan said. “He is really loyal and a good friend. He’s definitely grown to be really mature and responsible, and he’s always been very hard working and diligent.”

As Robert looks back on his high school years, he considers them a valuable learning experience. Through the numerous hardships he faced, Robert made a conscious effort to learn a lesson from each one, and these experiences have only fueled his desire to continue learning and growing.

“Going back to the Battle of the Bay competition, I was grateful for the opportunity to have participated in such a challenging competition,” Robert said. “The experience has only served to further ignite my drive, to persist in the face of obstacles, rise above any setbacks and never give up.”

Additional reporting by Olivia Xu.