Engineering tomorrow’s tech

LIHUE — Talk about teamwork.

An international robotics competition has inspired Kauai youth to immerse themselves in the sciences, and local sponsors hope to prepare them for possible high-tech industries on island.

Kauaibot is an inter-school program with members from all the high schools as well as home-schooled students who take part in an international competition each year to build a 120-pound robot within six weeks to complete specific tasks. A team with many sub-teams conduct prototyping, computer-aided design, metal work, wiring and optical software design to drive the robot.

“There are around 30 kids on the team,” said Deanna Sloger, 17, an Island School senior who serves as internal and external communications director to keep sub-teams informed and talking.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is designed to inspire students to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEM + Art and Design. Around 50 area mentors, including scientists, teachers, IT professionals, machinists and computer software engineers strive to inspire them in innovation, life skills, confidence, communication and leadership.

The students meet after school in vacant store space donated by Kukui Grove. It serves as a convenient classroom space. Construction occurs there out of shipping containers at Island School.

Scott Libert created Kauai Labs as an open source product development tool that helps fund the nonprofit Kauai Robotics Alliance. Students apply their learning by building autonomous robot systems. That includes study of optical sensors, inertial navigation sensors, geo-positioning sensors, advanced algorithms for precision orientation, and vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

“They produce and develop products completely from open sources,” Libert said. “The focus is to give younger people the access and insight to develop new production using high technology.”

Innovation is fundamental to securing a future and has the power to change the world, he said. K-Lab is a model of the collaborative process and welcomes contributions from anyone.

“The kids are making actual circuit boards for robotics and developing sophisticated navigation techniques,” he said.

This bridge from academic to vocational is what encourages young people to utilize their time and energy in a creative way to make them lifelong innovators, Libert said. Its goal is to inspire a generation to rebuild and grow local and national economies by creatively solving key challenges of today and tomorrow.

“Except for the students, I do not see a lot of others putting forth the effort to build stuff and I enjoy working with them,” Libert said.

Pacific Missile Range Facility spokesman Stefan Alford said the priority to hire locally includes efforts to encourage Kauai students to pursue possible careers in STEM-related fields. The goal is to help students develop skills and a dedicated, homegrown work ethic with a dozen or so volunteer mentors.

“As the No. 1 high-tech employer on Kauai, we partner with public and charter schools to provide opportunities for our island youth to visit base work sites and explore the many diverse technology-related pathways available to them right here at home,” Alford said.

At the post-secondary level, Alford said PMRF partners with Kauai Community College to support internships and field work for students pursuing degrees in a variety of areas, from engineering and earth sciences to early childhood education.

PMRF has around 1,000 civilian employees. Manu Kai, the largest civilian contractor at PMRF, provides 550 STEM-related employee and contract jobs in radar, telemetry and technical support for facility engineering, aerial target support, communications and network support.

“We are very proud of the fact that it is a true ohana here with multi-generational families that have been a part of PMRF from its beginnings,” said Commanding Officer Capt. Bruce Hay. “You can train people and teach them skills to perform certain jobs, but you can’t instil a strong work ethic and that’s a cultural value our Kauai family brings.”

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