Issue 12.3: June/July 2009

Kicking Bot

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.

A T-shirt slogan at the tournament says it all: “Proud to be a Nerd.” Robotics 
programs have been an international phenomenon for almost two decades now, but it wasn’t until last year that they flashed to life across Hawai‘i—blooming all at once from a couple of dozen programs to well more than 300. Funding from the State Legislature funneled through the UH College of Engineering has helped to spur the surge. Suddenly the Lego/Rubik’s Cube/video game set can now swagger like varsity athletes, winners not only of prestigious state titles, but also of international competitions.

When you talk with the robotics kids, they themselves use the term “nerd” purely in jest. After all, they know quite well what kind of a world is coming. One 12-year-old girl I spoke with at the VEX competition—Sara Bashore, who had traveled with her team from West Hills, Los Angeles—told me she’d been into robotics for three years now, partly because “it’s just really fun” but also because she intends to become a cardiologist, and by the time she gets to work (she knows this for a fact), we’ll all have medical nano-bots circulating in our bloodstreams cleaning up clots, cancer cells and creepy viruses. Robotics promises to be the next techno-revolution. Why else would 
elective programs in rural Hawai‘i schools be getting money from NASA, BAE Systems, Boeing, Autodesk, Motorola and just about any big company that intends to stay in front of the wave?

In fact, robotics attracts students of all stripes. The same day I spoke with Sara, I spoke with Jon Asato, who is a student in Maui High School’s arts and communication track. He calls robotics “a good outlet to express my creativity at school. 

It allows me to use critical thinking and to practice working with others.” Communication is a big part of robotics, he says; it’s a field that requires a lot of teamwork and sharing of ideas. Laughing, he adds that robotics keeps him out of trouble: “No time for escapades. I do VEX from 2 o’clock to 6 or 7:30 four or five days a week.” In this way, Jon echoes statements people are always making about robotics—first, that it teaches far more than mere technology; and second, that kids in robotics programs become involved to an almost fanatical degree.

“The teachers’ complaint to me is that the kids don’t want to go home,” says Art Kimura, the man people call the grandfather of Hawai‘i robotics. “Is that so bad?” A retired University of Hawai‘i professor who runs Future Flight Hawai‘i, a project designed to get elementary students excited about science and technology, Art was a finalist for NASA’s Teacher in Space program back in the 1980s. Eleven years ago he teased a couple of grants from NASA’s space science program—the same people who sent those automated rovers to Mars—and helped start the first robotics projects at McKinley 
and Waialua High Schools.

Art was at the 2008 VEX tournament, drifting calmly through the crowded hubbub with Buddha-like poise and a serene smile. “This year in the state, robotics programs spent well over a million dollars. We now have nine qualifying tournaments in the state. Something happened here,” he said with a twinkle. “We’re not sure what.” Then he added earnestly, “We’re not just playing games with robots. We’re hoping to catalyze these kids into high-tech careers. For that, they need to learn how to be better workers. They need to learn teamwork and life skills.”

To learn what Art Kimura means by “life skills,” I visited Waialua High School on O‘ahu’s North Shore. The long, two-lane road out to Waialua runs through miles of shaggy grassland, the weedy aftermath of a collapsed sugar cane economy. The sprawling, dusty campus is too large for its student population, a fact that has created plenty of room for Glenn Lee’s ambitious program in FIRST robotics.

FIRST is similar to VEX but ten times more challenging. Not only is the scale much greater—instead of small foam cubes, these bots (last year) had to handle 40-inch-diameter balls and hoist them over shoulder-high tracks—but the design and construction process is far more demanding. Students manufacture their own components, and that involves welding and powder-coating, operating mills and lathes to fabricate hubs and gears, creating circuit boards and transmissions, working with pneumatics and radio technology and, of course, learning all sorts of software applications including 
CAD, LabView and Autodesk. That’s not all. FIRST challenges the teams to include documentation via web sites and videography and also to do computer animation. All of these activities happen at Waialua year-round out of four large rooms.

The annual budget for this elective program is $100,000, all of which Glenn Lee’s students raise themselves, largely from community supporters. If the scope of this program seems near miraculous for such a sleepy little school, here’s another surprise: Last year, the team competed with more than 3,000 teams in the Atlanta Georgia Dome and took the second-highest award in the world. This year, the kids are determined to become world champions.

The secret to Waialua’s success is Glenn Lee’s unorthodox teaching approach. Serious and soft-spoken, Glenn has a master’s degree in business administration and runs the program on that model. “Our kids are self-directed,” he says. “They each have their roles, and I act as the project manager, doing quality control. It’s like a perfect business.”

Each student is provided the equipment (computer, etc.) and given responsibility to play a vital role in the team effort. Leia Lendio, tenth-grader, creates the web 
site on which she publishes her reports on the team’s daily efforts. Armand Gahol, 
a junior who moved here from the Philippines at age 12, is the group’s master 
machinist and also does graphic design and production. He says, “I think of robotics as work. It builds character, trust me.”

Senior Brianna Acosta, who’s planning to double-major in international relations and journalism when she gets to college, has responsibility for all the team’s documentation and outreach. She says, “You have to commit a good portion of your life to robotics.” Even so, she points out that almost all of the members of their team of 25—the majority of them female—are school athletes. “Being out here in the boonies helps us more than hurts us,” she says. “We have a yearning for more. I think that’s what drives our team.”

Another “boonies” high school, Waiakea in Hilo, recently sent two of its students to intern at NASA’s Ames Research Center. There, one of them, Jordan Olive, invented a way to repel dust from bots in remote locations (like the planet Mars). NASA is patenting that. The other, Kelson Lau, helped to create a tiny device that detects electrical currents as minuscule as 100 femtoamps. Kelson returned to Hilo interested in microbots. By creating teeny circuit boards, he built a robot less than 1 cubic inch in size. He took that to the International Micro Robot Maze Contest in Nagoya, Japan, and won second place against college-level teams from all over Asia. (Art Kimura told me, “Microbots is really for universities, but the kids don’t know the difference.”)

Kelson told me, “I like to see things that I built work in the way I intended them to work. I like to see things move.” He started with Lego in preschool and now is applying to the country’s top engineering schools; without robotics it’s hard to imagine what he would have found in Hilo to move him across such a dramatic arc. “Robotics has changed my life and prepared me for the future,” he said. But he adds that he doubts he’ll make it to the top schools since his GPA is slightly less than perfect.

A few hours later, I spoke with his teacher, Eric Hagiwara, who said, “Kelson is just being modest. In fact, today the president of CalTech is visiting our school to meet Kelson and look at the program. George Washington University in St. Louis has already invited Kelson to attend. Ninety percent of the kids who have come through our program are now in engineering schools or working in the engineering field.”

He added, “I think the economy of the future is going to be built around robotics. 
What Hawai’i can do within this industry is build something small. I personally think this is the way we’re going to go.” That would certainly be good for Hilo, where the economy has been depressed for decades now and where Eric has had to build his program on kalua pig fundraisers.

I asked Eric if he, the teacher, can do the kind of robotics work that Kelson, for 
example, does. He shook his head no with a big happy smile. “Right now I’m just watching. One of my students recently asked me, ‘Mr. Hagiwara, what resistor is this?’ [It was so small] I couldn’t even see it.” HH