Mentoring a High School Robotics Team

Vol. 29 No. 1


Cynthia Hannah-White heads Kauai Estate Law, LLLC, a solo practice in Lihue, Hawaii, focusing on the areas of estate planning, probate, and trust law.


As a mentor for the “Kauaibots,” Kauai’s All-Island High School Robotics Team, I get to help the youth of our community to learn, grow, and expand their future opportunities while honing my analytical skills and having fun. As soon as you know what competitive robotics is—kids building robots that play fast-paced, challenging games with other robots—you can see why it’s a growing and highly successful activity in many of our schools, from about third grade through college. Kids love robotics because it’s hands-on, full of solving real problems using real tools, surprisingly social, and intrinsically cool. Teachers love it because it appeals to a variety of kids and stimulates interest in science, math, and engineering like nothing else. There are many scholarships available (the FIRST program alone offers more than $15 million in college scholarships), and for many of these kids, this program is what gets them excited not only about engineering but about college in general. I first learned about robotics through my son and niece, who got involved with the activity in high school, but I soon found that there is even a niche on the team that is particularly suited to my professional skills as an attorney.

No, the team isn’t plagued by injuries or lawsuits, let alone crime. Asset management isn’t a big issue. So what do I do?

I’m the rules expert.

Although perhaps not as complex as the internal revenue code or Medicaid regulations, the robotics rules present their own challenges. For each competition there is a new set of rules, with several different categories that overlap and interact in their application. For example, there are rules for the design and construction of the robot itself, for playing and scoring the games and tournaments, and for safety. So, while the students and engineering mentors are busy designing, building, and testing their robots and game strategies, I read the competition rule book, monitor forums and e-mail lists for rule changes, answer questions, and try to anticipate problems we might encounter and loopholes that might be exploited by other teams.

This is no small thing: A seemingly minor detail of robot construction or game strategy can cost your team a match or get you disqualified from playing entirely. If this is first discovered after the team arrives at a tournament, it may be impossible to recover, which means that weeks of work, thousands of dollars, sponsors’ goodwill, and 50 kids’ dreams go down the drain. We’ve seen it happen.

Here’s an example from last year’s FIRST competition. The FIRST robots are big and move fast, so they’re required to have special, heavy-duty bumpers to minimize damage when they hit each other or a part of the field. The game required that our robot position itself next to a low platform and attach a minibot to a pole rising from its center. Positioning the robot would be much easier if its rear bumper had a center notch matching the shape of the platform. So at the last minute, our students (without consulting the rule book, despite my prior exhortations) built such a “notched” bumper. When I saw it, just a day before we were to crate and ship the robot off to its first competition, something bothered me, so I rechecked the rules and—sure enough—indented bumpers were specifically disallowed. The rebuild took several hours and there was a lot of grumbling, but everyone agreed that their nagging “rulesmeister” had saved their bacon.

That experience, more than any explaining, cajoling, or urging, really brought home to the students the impact that a good (or poor) understanding of the rules can have on the success of a venture. As I head into my second season in this role, I hope to engage more students in the process of rule interpretation and application, showing them how it actually involves many of the same logical and analytical skills that are used in engineering and science. In fact, some of the students have already been inspired to put their math skills to work in figuring out how to make the best of the somewhat odd algorithms that are used to rank teams in a tournament. (Sometimes, it turns out, it is actually better in the long run to score fewer points, or even to score points for the opposing team, but it is necessary to completely understand the scoring rules to know when and how to use these techniques. Kind of like tax planning, in an odd sort of way.)

Because our island is so small (about 60,000 people total), rural, and remote, we have had some special challenges to overcome. Most robotics teams are from a single high school, but we have a single, island-wide team, with participants from all four of the high schools on Kauai. Some students have to travel for more than an hour to reach the shop. Many mechanical parts aren’t available locally, and we can’t compete at all without expensive air travel—for us and also for our robots, spare parts, and tools. (Getting a crate of robot parts through airport security is a challenge all by itself!) In addition, many of the elementary and middle schools are just starting robotics programs, at a time when personnel and financial resources are already spread very thin on this island that has been hard-hit by the recession.

To help coordinate these various programs and share resources, I recently helped create a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, which will be able to pursue grants that some schools aren’t eligible for and provide broad-based support for all of the robotics programs on Kauai. We hope to raise funds to build a robotics arena and sponsor local competitions that will give our kids more chances to advance to the higher levels of competition. In doing the legal work to make that happen, I’ve learned about nonprofit law and developed skills that will help me serve my clients, and I’ve given back to my community something that few others can offer.

Through my work in robotics, I feel like I’m helping kids to discover strengths they never knew they had and opportunities and options they never knew existed. But the real reason I do it? Robotics is fun! The building season is endless adventure, something new every day: this girl learning to use the lathe, that boy getting a piece of code working, a new rule change to figure out. Just watching the competition is as exciting as any sport, and I also get to cruise around the pits (where teams work on their robots between matches), scout the other teams’ strengths and weaknesses, strategize, and be part of the action. It’s a lot of work, and stressful sometimes, but also a real thrill to see the kids having so much fun while they are learning science, math, engineering, and, yes, maybe even a little “law.”


Robotics: A Primer

Competitive robotics is “the only sport where every player can turn pro.” In robotics, teams of students, coached by adult mentors, design and build a robot to play a game—a new game each year. Robots have to be sturdy and move quickly; they may have to place, throw, or kick objects, block other robots, even deploy a separate “mini-bot” with its own task.

Robotics has all the striving, teamwork, and excitement of an athletic sport but is more inclusive and diverse. Teams can be large (ours has more than 50 students and about 30 mentors), and there’s plenty for everyone to do. No one is turned away. Kids not only learn hardware and software engineering and mechanical skills, but also public speaking, video production, website design, safety, “gracious professionalism,” and a host of other skills. The designers, builders, programmers, organizers, fund raisers, scouts, and communicators are as important and respected as the drivers, coaches, and handlers who actually step out onto the playing field. Competitive robotics celebrates mental achievement with all the hoopla and excitement usually reserved for sports and entertainment, and it introduces the kids to many, many other people who value and excel in the same things, throughout the community, state, and nation.

For more information on competitive robotics at all levels, Google “FIRST robotics,” “VEX robotics,” or “botball.”



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