The Journey

Robotics Team Cultivates Learning in Young Engineers
By Michael Harri

For Jim Wright, '90, robotics is more than a hobby; it is a means to help change the world. On Dec. 11, 2002, he entered room 545 of Bellevue High School and became a mentor to a team of robot builders.

Wright had just been in the crowd of a robot competition months before, and heard Segway inventor Dean Kamen speak in between matches. Kamen called out engineers in the crowd at the competition and challenged them to get involved in helping engineering students.

"I turned to my friend and said, 'This guy is right and we should be a part of this,'" Wright said.

His robot team is part of the Foundation for the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST). Kamen founded FIRST to funnel the efforts of engineers to relieve world suffering. The high-energy competitions are just one part of their efforts; the competitions pit high school teams and their robots against each other in a teamwork-based format. These competitions are run in the hopes of attracting more students into field of engineering.

FIRST is designed to cultivate these thoughts in those passionate about robots but who would not necessarily consider themselves a factor in helping the world's needy. Through their club meetings and competitions, engineers and programmers are shown that they can help the needy with their knowledge and skills. Most of those involved with FIRST are volunteers.

FIRST emphasizes that mentors are there to first show the students how to do a project, then through slow repetition let the students take over the job.

"The ultimate goal is to have the students run the whole show and we adult mentors stand on the sidelines and watch," Wright said.

Former President George H.W. Bush once described FIRST robot competitions as being "like the WWF, but for smart people."

Wright describes the FIRST competitions as a football game where a player is injured, but the opposing team offers one of their players to fill in.

"If a team is missing something, all they have to do is ask their neighbors for something and they will gladly give it," Wright said.

Computer Science Degree helped launch Wright's career

Wright graduated from Whitworth in 1990 with a B.A. in math and a B.S. in computer science and joined The Boeing Company while completing his master's degree in software engineering at Seattle University. Wright was offered an opportunity to work with Microsoft immediately following graduation, but he chose to work for Boeing.

"Every once in a while I wonder what I would be doing if I had joined Microsoft," Wright said.

At Seattle University, Wright did an Internet search for "robots." An M.I.T. course that built LEGO robots was the first search result and Wright ordered a robot kit for himself. "Not-Fall-Off Bot" was his first creation, one that simply had to stay on a table. Wright soon found himself in Connecticut at a robot competition, this time with a firefighting robot. While there, he learned that Seattle was home to some robot fanatics like himself.

Wright introduced himself to The Seattle Robotic Society in June 1997, and from there he sunk his teeth into the robotics world. SRS as "the largest hobbyist robotic society on the planet," Wright said, and he now serves as the society's president.

The SRS is heavily involved with FIRST and sells robot kits to be used in FIRST competitions. While robotics is his main passion, Wright also dabbles in software programming at Astronics Corporation, in Redmond, Wash.

Work at aviation company revolutionizing industry

Wright is senior principal software engineer at Astronics, which makes lighting and electronics systems for airplanes. Astronics was recently named #1 on Fortune Small Business Magazine's 2008 list of America's 100 fastest growing small public companies. There he writes code for testing products and also worked with Panasonic to design a charging station for an on-board flight entertainment system.

"If engineering ranks were equated to the military, I could be around a major in the army," Wright said.

Wright is currently involved with designing a more efficient airplane alternator that would require less maintenance and put out more electrical current. This, Wright says, will save revenue and also allow business jets to run air conditioning while taxing for take-off.

"This will revolutionize the business jet world," Wright said.

Wright is passionate about motivating students to pursue engineering careers. From there they can help with projects for clean water filtration systems, develop building construction methodologies that use natural resources, and assist in granting a laptop to every person.

"The world needs more engineers, more scientists and programmers," Wright said. "We read over and over about places where people live off dollars a day and live in slums with horrid drinking water."

Wright hopes that his work through the robotics team will create a better world to live in.

"When you become an engineer, the deal is to donate some of your time to the next generation or help solve these world problems we've got," Wright said.

Wright's work with his students is driven by a convicting mantra: "Walk into the club for the robot building, leave for a career."