Tag Archives: Art Kimura

Hawaii Robotics: ‘Kids Don’t Want To Go Home!’

Art Kimura, who’s been called Hawai‘i’s “Father of Robotics,” has a lot of enthusiasm for promoting Hawaii Robotics programs in our schools.

We talked to him about what sorts of careers Robotics sometimes leads children toward, the exciting state and world championships the kids compete in, and what’s going on with access to the programs.

This is the second part of a two-part series on the subject. Read Part 1 here.

Q. What do children learn from Robotics, and what sort of careers are those skills useful in?

Art Kimura: It definitely leans toward engineering and computer science. Those are the two high-level occupations that we’ve seen many kids strive for as a result of Robotics. I think one real strong piece of evidence, although it’s never been studied well enough to say this is definitely it, is that the University of Hawai‘i College of Engineering enrollment has nearly doubled since Robotics started.

Nobody’s done a study on it but we kind of see the linkage because if you interview the students there, many of them say, “Yeah, I was on this Robotics team or that Robotics team.”

It’s also well documented that many girls will say, “I’m an engineer because of Robotics.” In other words, they never thought of it until they joined the Robotics team and then the light bulb went on. “Hey, I can do this.”

Tell me about the Pan Pacific VEX Championships that were just held here.

We were in the Kamehameha Schools gym and we had 88 teams playing and hundreds of parents and other supporters. It was an awesome ‘ohana of Kamehameha faculty and students who provided the venue and services, from the opening 60-plus dancers who showcased Hawai‘i’s culture to the concluding final matches on Sunday.

Hawaii robotics

The place was so loud with the parents cheering and the music blaring out and excited MCs calling the matches, students dancing in the stands. You could hardly hear each other talking, even if you were sitting next to each other. It was just like a sporting event.

Is it an annual championship?

We used to have it annually and then we stopped for a couple of years for different reasons. The reason this was reignited is we had a discussion at Hawaiian Electric Company.

Hawaiian Electric has a partnership with Okinawa Enetech, which is the utility on Okinawa. They’re trying to learn from each other. The Okinawans were interested in what Hawai‘i Electric does in Hawai‘i in terms of STEM education.

Hawai‘i Electric has been long-time supporters of STEM education. They give money to support science fairs, they give money for many different causes in terms of STEM, and they’ve become a strong supporter of Robotics. Twenty years ago, they supported Waialua and they’re still supporting them today. They’re our title sponsor of our state VEX championship, so they have contributed not only funds but their volunteers also come out and support the tournament.

In that discussion we had with Hawaiian Electric, and because of their partnership with Okinawa Enetech, we thought we would bring back the Pan Pacific Championship as a means of trying to get this tournament held not only in Hawai‘i but also in other countries. The vision is this tournament that we just hosted will rotate to other countries, like an Olympic-style event, where it could be in China or it could be in Taiwan (but all in the Pacific Rim because that’s what our focus is).

By having teams come here, our kids can participate in an international competition and see how they measure up. A few years ago when we hosted it at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, we grew the tournament into the second largest tournament in the world. One hundred and twelve teams. We still consistently get 20 teams from China coming to that. China has thousands of VEX Robotics teams, probably approaching 5 or 6 thousand now.

Hawaii robotics

We have some sub-issues going on where we’re hoping this tournament will catalyze Okinawa. Right now, Okinawa has no VEX Robotics program because they have their own program. We’re trying to see if we can get into their system with this program and sort of selfishly, we would like our teachers here, who are really experts in this area, to be the trainers; to send them there to train the Okinawans.

We also had representatives from three Department of Defense schools, from Korea and Okinawa, at our tournament to see whether they can include that in the Department of Defense schools in Korea, Japan, the Philippines and other entities around the Pacific. Again, with our goal being our teachers will become the trainers.

We work very closely with the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation. They’re a non-profit and they organize all these VEX tournaments worldwide. Their president was the one who helped start our program back 20 years ago. He brought his team to Hawai‘i and helped us start.

Anyway, he offered us two world championship slots for our Pan Pacific Championship, so two teams would qualify for next April’s World VEX Championships in Louisville, Kentucky. We’re first in the world to qualify two teams.

Has Hawai‘i Robotics gone to the world championships before?

We went to that championship this past year with 31 of our Hawai‘i teams and it was absolutely amazing. The facility’s so large. Literally, I was walking 10 to 12 miles a day inside the building just to go visit the teams.

There will be probably about 25,000 people cheering on the kids next year and probably 1,000 teams competing from all over the world.

How did Hawai‘i do last year?

We do really well, but we don’t win the championship. It’s just difficult to get to that level, but our teams win trophies, they finish high. We’re proud of them when they do that. Several came home with trophies.

What’s coming up this year?

This year we have two different games. One game is called Starstruck. It’s a fun game where these stars get thrown back and forth across the field, these bean bags get thrown back and forth, and at the end of the game the robot climbs a pole.

The state high school championship, for the very first time, is going to be held here on the Big Island on January 5th at Kea‘au High School. It’s the start of some two dozen more IQ and VRC Robotics tournaments statewide. The VEX middle school state championship will be held at the new Stevenson Middle School STEM center on January 7, and the VEX IQ state championships for elementary and middle school will be held February 20 at the Hawai‘i Convention Center.

Robotics is something you don’t get until you see it, really. You don’t feel what the kids feel until you actually go to a tournament and see the excitement.

It’s really exciting. It’s the value of having fun while you’re learning. And when you ask the kids what they like about it, they come up with all kind of different reasons about what it’s teaching them.

What are the challenges?

One of our big challenges right now is access. Less than five percent of kids in Hawai‘i have access to participating on a Robotics team.

Representative Mark Nakashima really helped us this past year with legislation he got passed by the legislature. Several years ago, he sent money to the Department of Labor and initially they focused on things like agriculture. This past year, the Labor people contacted us about IT. In other words, how do you get more kids interested in IT kind of stuff?

We got access to that funding, and because of that we were able to increase statewide participation in VEX IQ 55 percent in a single year.

That kind of infusion of money really helps because I can go to a school and say, find me a mentor and we’ll provide all the resources for you.

It’s not a huge investment. Offering Konawaena Elementary three Robotics kits and a game field, the value is probably about $1,700. We’ve got 55 kids involved there. And everything is reusable except the new game, because every April a new game is announced. As far as the kit, though, you can use it year after year. Once you get the initial parts in the schools, they can sustain it on their own.

Why should people encourage their kids to get involved with Robotics?

It goes back to having kids learning life skills through this process. I think it’s a wonderful way – it engages them and it’s real to the students.

One major complaint I get from teachers about Robotics all the time is the kids don’t want to go home. It motivates them to do something on their own. It’s nothing that they’re forced to do and they don’t get graded on it. They do it as a club activity most of the time.

You never know, the experience could change their life. They never thought of engineering, they never thought of programming, but all of the sudden, the light bulb goes on and there it is.

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Hawaii Robotics Teaches More Than Just Building Robots

Hawaii robotics enthusiast Art Kimura is the “Father of Robotics” in Hawai‘i. More officially, he’s Education Specialist at the University of Hawai‘i’s Hawai‘i Space Grant Consortium.

Hundreds of Big Island children, from elementary through high school, participate in Robotics. We talked to him about what exactly Robotics is, how it got started in Hawai‘i, and all the skills – some of them rather unexpected – that children learn from participating.

This is the first post of a two-part series.

Hamakua Springs: How would you describe Robotics to someone who isn’t familiar with it?

Art Kimura: When I talk to parents, I talk more about Robotics as a tool to teach students life skills. The life skills we try to impart are team work, problem solving, time management, communication and integrity.

To me, those are the most important things to get out of Robotics because they are applicable whether you become an engineer or in any other job you pursue in the future.

Robotics has grown enormously over the last 20 years because of two factors: First, the planners took advantage of what society values. What does society value the most, that gets the most media attention, gets the most money? It’s sports and entertainment. Robotics took advantage of that. It created sports-like games and at the tournaments they play music and have loud MCs.

And I really think Robotics is a social experience as well. Parents often ask me, “What kind of kit should I buy?” I tell them, “Don’t buy a Robotics kit for your child because they’ll get bored with it at home by themself.” It really is a social experience where having a group of people who can work together seems to energize them.

How long have you been involved with Robotics?

The origin was a meeting in Hilo, just sort of a chance meeting when what’s now known as the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center was being conceived of. Because it was Senator Inouye’s money that was being sent through NASA, NASA sent a representative to the first meeting. I was walking around with my plate looking for some place to sit and there was a man sitting by himself. I sat down with him.

Turned out that he was an engineer from NASA who headed the National Robotics Alliance, and he started to tell me about the programs he was helping to run in the San Jose, San Francisco area. He gave me chicken skin because he was talking about taking gang kids off the street and turning them into kids that would go to UC Berkeley and other colleges.

At the time, we didn’t have any formal scholastic Robotics in Hawai‘i. He had come to Hawai‘i with a scholarship to fund one team to participate in a program called FIRST Robotics, and the value was about $4,000. He had offered the scholarship to the DOE, who would be assigning it to a school. Turns out that school became Waialua High School. They have one of the premier Robotics programs in the world right now – not just in Hawai‘i or the nation, but in the world.

Tell me more about what’s happening there at Waialua on O’ahu.

It’s Waialua High and Intermediate, a grade 8-12 school. They’re just an amazing operation in a small sugar plantation town, a lot of immigrant kids, and yet because of the vision of a teacher out there, over the past 20 years it’s grown into a program where they’re in the so-called Robotics Hall of Fame. They travel extensively to the Mainland. They went to China and Korea this year and they’re going to Japan next year.

Is Robotics as big in the rest of Hawai‘i?

In Hawai‘i, our history is that we were able to grow things very rapidly, to a very high level. But because our population is limited, then eventually we get outpaced.

For example, there’s a program I brought to Hawai‘i called Botball. It’s probably one of the hardest programs because the kids have to program the robot, build the robot and then program it to operate autonomously during the entire match. There’s no human control, so it’s high-level programming that they have to learn. It’s a pretty expensive program.

We grew it in Hawai‘i to the largest in the world. At one time there were 42 teams. In the world there were like 300, and we had 42 of them. We were bigger than New York or California. Twice we hosted the world championship in Hawai‘i because we had so many teams.

Botball has kind of tapered down now to maybe only 10 teams, though, because of the cost. I think even more than the cost is the difficulty of doing it. You need to find a mentor that can teach kids how to program at very high levels.

How many kids are involved with Robotics on the Big Island?

I’m just guessing, but I would say about 700 to 800 kids in elementary, middle  and high school, both boys and girls. We have some all-girl teams. There’s a Girl Scout team in Kea‘au that has three teams right now. It’s Troop 254.

Is there a certain type of child who is especially interested in Robotics, or does very well in Robotics?

I think it takes different types of people to have a successful team. You have some that like to do the mechanical part of building, and you have some that focus on the programming side. You need the cheerleader type. There are some kids on the team, they just want to belong to an organization but they’re not athletes, and so they join the team and they become the rah-rah people. They organize different aspects of it, like the documentation. There’s room for everybody on a team, depending on how the team is organized.

What are the other Robotics programs here in Hawai‘i?

There are nine programs right now. We have a program called FIRST LEGO League, a very big program. That’s an elementary and middle school program and it’s well-known at many schools. I think they must have about 140 or 150 teams in Hawai‘i.

There’s also FIRST Tech Challenge and FIRST. FIRST Tech Challenge is for middle and high school kids

FIRST is a large robot that the kids build from scratch, about 125 pounds, and they play in a sporting-like environment. The name FIRST stands for “For Inspiration of Science and Technology” and it’s a well-known program nationally. We have about 27 teams in Hawai‘i that play in that program. It’s very expensive. The entry fee alone is about $6000. The initial outlay is about $10,000 per team. But the kids learn a lot.

Where does that money come from?

They fundraise. Waialua is a good example. The reason I send a lot of people out there to visit is that yeah, they make good robots, but their business plan is just amazing. They raise about $150,000, $160,000 a year to support their program. It’s just a well-orchestrated business plan – how to solicit sponsors, and more importantly, how to retain a sponsor.

So they are learning incredible business skills, too.

Yes. Out of maybe 35 kids, probably only 10 build robots. The others are doing media things. They maintain the website, they document everything. They’re trained in how to solicit sponsors, to thank sponsors for their sponsorship level. It not only sustains itself but increases oftentimes. They write grants. It’s just an amazing operation they have out there.

Are any Big Island schools operating at that level?

They can’t match that here. It’s because of the way the lead teacher at Waialua organized it. He sees the bigger picture.

Most of our schools in Hawai‘i struggle financially and not only that, they also have limited space. If they are able to get a room, they’re lucky. Most of them are working out of part of a classroom. Waialua has six rooms dedicated just for Robotics. It’s because, again, the vision is much broader.

It sounds like we need more of that vision here on the Big Island.

Absolutely, yeah. It’s difficult because teachers are so busy in their day-to-day work that to come up with what Waialua is doing is very difficult. You have to be kind of a skilled grant writer, but it’s possible.

To me, that’s the high bar. You always want to look at that, even if you can’t replicate it identically. There are parts of it I think we can all learn from.

What are the other Robotics programs?

There are two versions of underwater Robotics in Hawai‘i. They run them in swimming pools. Good program, not very big. Primarily, I think, because from the audience side, it’s difficult to get people excited because it’s hard to imagine what’s going on underwater.

I focus more on a program called VEX Robotics because, to me, it’s much more sustainable and expandable. That’s the one we just had the tournament for in Honolulu.

We have over 300 VEX Robotics teams now in Hawai‘i. We’re in about 35 percent of the schools. On the Big Island alone we have 53 teams, so we have one-fourth of the total participants in the state right now. It’s grown enormously on this island.

What are the challenges with Robotics?

Part of the big challenge in Robotics for several years has been access. There are so many kids that are interested but because of various reasons, the opportunity to participate is very limited. A school can say, We have a Robotics program. When you ask, Well, how many kids? They say, Well, we have a FIRST LEGO League team – which is limited to 10 kids.

That means it could be 10 kids out of 500, and usually the school will go through a selection process. My concern always is the average student often is left out because they take the gifted and talented to represent the school.

With IQ (one of the VEX programs) what’s good is there’s no limit on the number of students or the number of teams you can have per school. Some schools have six teams and they may have 20 or 30 kids registered. I was at Konawaena Elementary two weeks ago to visit, and I was really stunned because there were like 55 kids there with six teachers. It’s very unusual for that many teachers to be involved. It’s amazing.

The demand is there and access is what we’re trying to deal with.

Part 2: ‘Kids Don’t Want To Go Home!’

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Why Are Robots Assembling on Hawaii Island?

For the first time, the State Championship event for Hawai‘i high school VEX robotics will be held on the Big Island.

The championship event in January 2017, which, appropriately for the astronomy-oriented Big Island, is called “Starstruck,” will host 30 to 36 high school VEX robotics teams from throughout the state. Winning teams from the State Championship event will qualify for the World VEX Championship games, to be held in April 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Last year, 31 Hawai‘i robotics teams participated at the World Championship, including eight middle and high school VEX teams. Kohala High School won the Judges Award. Twenty three VEX IQ elementary and middle school teams participated last year, including Kea‘au Elementary School.

Teams are already designing and programming robots to meet the 2017 games challenges. Schools interested in joining VEX VRC or IQ should email Art Kimura, Education Specialist at UH Manoa’s Hawai’i Space Grant Consortium, as soon as possible.

Volunteers are needed for the January 6th championship event. Organizations and individuals are needed for judging, refereeing, scorekeeping, announcing and queuing. To volunteer, contact Art Kimura with your organization affiliation, if any, and t-shirt size. Volunteers receive lunch, drinks and a t-shirt.

To qualify for the State Championships, teams must first qualify in tournaments to be held on Onizuka Science Day (January 28, 2017; volunteers and sponsors are still needed for that day as well). VEX VRC middle and high school qualifying robotics tournaments will be held at Waiakea Intermediate and Kohala High. VEX IQ Crossover elementary and middle school qualifying tournaments will be held at Waiakea Elementary, Kealakehe High School and UH Hilo.

VEX VRC and IQ robotics are the fastest growing robotics programs in the world with more than 16,000 teams. Last year Hawai‘i had 238 teams, and it’s projected to have least 300 in the near future, representing more than 30 percent of the state’s schools. This is due to an infusion of state labor work force development funds, says Kimura, who thanks Representative Mark Nakashima.

“Robotics would not be possible in Hawai‘i without the generous support of the community and the hundreds of volunteers, including team mentors,” says Kimura.

“On the Big Island, the early and continuous support of the Thirty Meter Telescope and Sandra Dawson has increased schools’ and communities’ access to scholastic robotics. Statewide, the Hawaiian Electric Companies and the aio Foundation have generously provided support where we have experienced a 300 percent growth in VEX IQ robotics in just two years. We are one of only ten states to show a +50 team increase in one year, and on a per capita basis, we lead the nation in participation.”

This October, an international robotics competition called the Pan Pacific Championship will be held on O‘ahu. It will include more than 20 teams from China, Taiwan, Korea, New Zealand and Canada as well as Hawai‘i.

“We thank the generous support of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Hawaiian Electric Companies, the County of Hawai‘i (Research and Development), and Kea‘au High School, to make it possible for the Big Island to host the Starstruck State Championship tournament,” says Kimura.

Kimura says if the Mauna Kea Outreach Committee, UH Hilo, or any other Big Island organizations would like to help support the State Championship tournament, they can email him at art@higp.hawaii.edu. Sponsors’ logos will be on the volunteer t-shirts and the championship banners awarded to winning teams. Sponsors are also provided with a sponsor table at the tournament.

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