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. - William Ing/Tribune-Herald

Machinery in motion

The Hilo Youth Robotics program preparing for 'Robot Olympics'

by Peter Sur
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

The 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 worked.

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 help.

Yet the students were engaged in something far more gripping than their personal comfort. They were building robots.

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.

"You can have it stop on a piece of tape, and you can stop when it's almost to the edge of the table," Tanaka said.

Students 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 complete.

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.

"It gets 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 Kim.

That's why Peng and Tanaka were examining their lines of code Thursday, trying to see what was wrong with their robot.

"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 center.

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.

Dane Miyata, 11, is entering Hilo Intermediate School and is a co-builder of Bee Vader, along with Damien Aguiar.

"It 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.

"I think 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 electrician.

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 and Development.

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 learning."

"The kids are great help. They're teaching us," Rosario-Cabral said. "Smart kids."

Peter Sur can be reached at


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