|Fourteen-year-old Noa Flaherty,
left, of Hilo High, and A.J. Marshall, 17, of
Waiakea High, try to work out a glitch in their
robot's twin sensors, outlined in orange, which
prevented the machine from tracking the red and
blue balls and corralling them all with its long
arms. The two youths were participating Thursday
in a workshop in preparation for today's "Robot
Olympics" challenge, open to the public, starting
at 1 p.m. at Connections Public Charter School. -
Machinery in motion
The Hilo Youth Robotics program
preparing for 'Robot Olympics'
by Peter SurThe
Hilo Youth Robotics program was stuffy, noisy and chaotic.
Tiny pieces of gray plastic were strewn everywhere around the
floor of the second-story Kress Building room, where students
There are 29 kids enrolled, and many of them
talk at once. There's no air conditioning, and the added heat
from a dozen computers and the midday sun didn't
Yet the students were engaged in something far
more gripping than their personal comfort. They were building
Students at the Hilo Youth Robotics workshop
were busy Thursday fine-tuning their machines for today's
"Robot Olympics" at 1 p.m. at Connections Public Charter
School. The public is invited.
Patrick Peng, 12, and Chase Tanaka, 10,
were among those fine-tuning the code for their machine. All
students are using the Lego Mindstorm robotics kits. There's
only one girl in this session, but the first two-week session
was about equally divided between the sexes.
have it stop on a piece of tape, and you can stop when it's
almost to the edge of the table," Tanaka said.
began the workshop with a discussion of what a robot is, said
Alex Brownell, an instructor and student at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. From there, they learned
how to program it and were given progressively harder tasks to
The robots are endlessly configurable, but
for this workshop they resembled rovers. Some had scooping
attachments, and others had light and distance sensors. The
robot's brain, or "Intelligent Brick," resembled a prototype
iPod and connects to a programmer's computer via USB cable.
The previous workshop used an older programming platform,
called RCX, but for the second workshop students were learning
on NXT, a newer version.
From their computers, students delivered
commands via a program called ROBOLAB, which depicts computer
programming language in icons. Student-written programs ran
the gamut from simple to complex.
Depending on the
task, the machines could be programmed to be sensitive to
light, touch, ultrasound and sound.
Another RPI student
and workshop instructor, Erin Ruitenberg, said the robotics
workshop helps kids in several ways.
"It could, first
of all, get them interested in science," Ruitenberg said.
There are problem-solving tasks and discussions of
mathematical applications such as gear ratios.
them interested in problem solving and basic math concepts,"
she said. "For now, it's also getting them to work in teams
and problem solving."
Students paired up and worked on
their robots together. Today, the robots will be put through
their paces on six obstacle courses for an audience that
includes parents, the public and Mayor Harry
That's why Peng and Tanaka were examining their
lines of code Thursday, trying to see what was wrong with
"Right now, we're trying to program it to
follow a line (of tape), but we're having trouble with that,"
Peng said. "The robot's supposed to stop on a part of a strip
of tape, but it doesn't do that."
Peng was referring to
a spiral "maze" laid out on the floor with strips of
different-colored tape. Teams were told to program their
robots to follow the contours of the maze, and their
programming reflected different approaches to solving the
problem. One robot, for example, zipped through the course but
continued to drive in circles after reaching the
Another, named "Bee Vader," took its time
through the course, searching out each silver-colored spot on
the floor and stopping at a strip of blue tape.
Miyata, 11, is entering Hilo Intermediate School and is a
co-builder of Bee Vader, along with Damien Aguiar.
can follow the spiral maze and look for silver tape on it,"
Aguiar, 12, said.
Miyata was asked what he would take
away from the robotics program.
"It will help us later
on in life, if we decide to get a master's in engineering or
programming, and maybe we can invent something that could help
people," Miyata said.
Students cited a number of
reasons why they got interested in robotics.
it's kind of cool how we can make a hunk of plastic move
around and do stuff," Peng said.
Tanaka got interested
in robotics partly because of his father, an
Hilo Youth Robotics is a technology-based
educational enrichment camp operated by the AstroDay
Institute, with help from Connections Public Charter School
and the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. Other
supporters include RPI and the county Department of Research
It's not just students who are
learning to build robots. Twenty-five teachers, like Crystal
Fortin of Waiakeawaena and Sandy Rosario-Cabral of Kaumana
Elementary, are also enrolled and may someday open their own
robotics programs at their own schools.
"This is our
first experience with robotics, but it's fun and interesting,"
Fortin said. "We like to see kids creating and
"The kids are great help. They're teaching
us," Rosario-Cabral said. "Smart kids."
Peter Sur can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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