By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
When Hilo High School mathematics teacher Ryan Nakasato first became adviser three years ago of the Hilo Viking Robotics club, there was some question as to whether the struggling organization would continue to exist.
“The reason I took over was because they were thinking about getting rid of the robotics club,” he said. “We had maybe five students that were committed members.”
Since then, membership has ballooned to more than 30, and last month the club’s Team 1378 took home the coveted “Excellence Award” in Maui at a regional competition, on their way to qualifying for the VEX World competition in Anaheim, Calif. They’ll be headed to California in April to compete against 400 of the top international robotics teams in an event organized by the VEX Educational Robotics Design System.
The club’s resurgence has been truly remarkable, and the credit is due mostly to the work of the students, Nakasato added.
“The reason why I’m so committed to the club is because the students have taken ownership. … It’s not just about building a robot, it’s about where they see themselves going in 10, 20, or 30 years.”
He explained that the club’s growth got a major boost a couple years ago when a club member graduated and went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Now, the kids see that, and they say ‘Wow. People are getting into these top schools. I can do that,’” he said.
That inspiration has attracted students who are willing to put in the work required to build a top-tier robotics team and to think about the team’s future beyond their own personal involvement.
“That’s really the strength,” Nakasato said. “They’re worrying about where the club is going after they’re gone. Leaving behind a legacy.”
The students have taken over control of every facet of their operation, he said, from ordering parts, developing designs, raising funds for competition travel, computer programming, formulating business plans, recruitment of new members, and even training of younger students interested in robotics.
“We hold regular camps,” Nakasato said. “Kids 8-12 years old come out for our (week-long) camps we hold during fall break, winter break, spring break and summer break.”
The camps also serve as the club’s primary means of fundraising to pay for travel and lodging when they take part in competitions around the state and on the mainland.
By doing the vast majority of the work themselves, the students get a much better understanding of all aspects that go into the engineering, design, and operation of complicated robotic machinery, said 16-year-old club President Matt Pearring.
“What we’re trying to do is to get the kids to realize, to learn, that the things we learn in robotics are the things they’ll get to do later in life,” he said. “All the tools they learn in school, they don’t see a lot of practical opportunities to see them in action. This shows them.”
That working knowledge of all the components that go into building a successful team and successful robots has helped the team to make a name for itself, he added.
“Basically, the excellence award we won in Maui was given to the overall best club, and it was given to us because the judges said we demonstrated the knowledge of what we built the best of all the teams,” he said. “A lot of teams have a lot of aid. But we built it all ourselves.”
Now, the team is concentrating much of its focus on raising the money it needs to fly its members to Anaheim to take part in the VEX World competition. In addition to their camps, club members are in the midst of a campaign seeking donations from area businesses and other donors willing to participate. For more information about the club and its fundraising efforts, visit hilovikingrobotics.com.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.