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Intelligent design | Interlake students ushering in next wave of robotics

(Left to right) Alisha and Eshika Saxena and Tyler Okamoto stand near a competition-sized table the Saxena family buit for the group to practice.  - Josh Suman, Bellevue Reporter
(Left to right) Alisha and Eshika Saxena and Tyler Okamoto stand near a competition-sized table the Saxena family buit for the group to practice.
— image credit: Josh Suman, Bellevue Reporter

For generations of American children, Legos have provided an introduction to engineering, applied creativity and countless hours of youthful exuberance.

Alisha Saxena and Tyler Okamoto believe they can be a pathway to even more.

Saxena, a 16-year-old junior, said she became interested in robotics after a summer class through the University of Washington when she was in middle school. The ability to craft sheets of metal and pieces of wood into moving, acting robots immediately piqued her interest. Okamoto began even earlier, crafting his first robots from Legos as part of the Lego League at his elementary school.

"It's great how you can take inanimate objects and create something that does human functions," Saxena said. "It's like magic."

After honing their own skills in competitions through Lego Mindstorms and eventually the high school's Saints Robotics program, Saxena had the idea of beginning a mentorship program to broaden and enhance the robotics experience for elementary and middle school students.

With the help of Okamoto, their parents, and another mentor from Interlake, Saxena founded the TechnoLOGICians, a robotics-focused group for youngsters 9-14 who are interested in robotics and its applications to daily life.

The program began as a fundraising opportunity for Saints Robotics, but quickly grew into something more when the teen mentors realized the possibilities.

"We've had an overwhelming response," Saxena said. "Part of the reason I started this team is to give kids the opportunity I didn't have."

Lego Mindstorms, a branch of the wildly popular building-block toys, offers a line of sensors, attachments, accessories and most importantly, the NXT, a computer controlled nerve center for the robot. Students then construct robots to provide a variety of functions they will eventually test at the competition.

Saxena has taken that a step further, creating a project called, "Senior Solutions" that uses the Lego Mindstorm technology to create devices that will assist senior citizens. One of the first pieces they fashioned was a cane outfitted with senors that let the walker know if he or she is too close to a wall, door or other object.

"It's very tangible," Okamoto said. "The kids can see the pieces fit together and grasp it really easily."

While helping the Saints Robotics team to a top finish at this year's high school competition is certainly a goal, Saxena is more focused on the long-term impact of the mentorship program, which now has nine teams that will compete in the middle school portion of the VEX Robotics competition. She is also working to build the profile of a non-profit organization that focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and match) learning for third-world youth.

"I hope to have a global impact," she said. "That is part of the reason I started this team."

Eshika Saxena (left) and Alisha Saxena watch as a robot the team built executes a function. JOSH SUMAN, BELLEVUE REPORTER

The Saxena family has this table in their home so the TechnoLOGICians can practice on the same regulation-sized surface as they will compete on. JOSH SUMAN, BELLEVUE REPORTER

A robot, complete with its NXT brain center, and grabbing arms. JOSH SUMAN, BELLEVUE REPORTER

Using the NXT technology for practical purposes is the mission of 'Senior Solutions', which Saxena began to assist seniors in the area with applied technology. JOSH SUMAN, BELLEVUE REPORTER

Contact and submissions: jsuman@bellevuereporter.com

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