story by Paul Wood
photos by Chris McDonough
It’s December 2008, in a cavernous room at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, and we’re at the first-ever Pan-Pacific Tournament of a robotics program known as VEX. There are three “courts”—raised tables—in the room, on which robots roll, crawl and collide while attempting to grab and lift 4-inch cubes and drop them into goals of various heights. Lest you think that sounds fairly … staid, think again. Hundreds of teenagers are on their feet in the bleachers, screaming at the 18-inch-high offspring of R2D2 moving about the tables. Spotlights whirl, arcing through the crowd, and high-decibel disco music pounds through the air. A “sportscaster” with blue hair (in reality a scientist from NASA) dances between the tables, ranting wildly as he dodges a cameraman shooting
close-footage that’s projected onto a huge screen. And the other officials,
announcers and referees? They’re physics teachers and engineers.
As “Eye of the Tiger” and “Freak Out” blast, the athletes—in reality, skinny kids who stand in solemn clumps ringside using video game-style controllers and moving nothing more than their fingers—work their robots. For the first 20 seconds of each game, the robots are “autonomous,” that is, self-propelled as programmed by their teenage inventors. Then for two minutes, they respond to their human “drivers.” It’s all part of the world of VEX, and VEX itself is just one of seven different types of robotics that have now caught on in Hawai‘i’s schools. Caught on in a big way: Of the nearly 100 teams that have come to the tournament today with their inventions, most are from the Islands—although several are from schools as far away as China.