By Amy Eskind
April 05, 2018 01:42 PM
Credit: Courtesy Isabelle Jette

When other robotics teams see the students from Waialua High School coming, all they can say is, “Oh, no, here come the Hawaiian kids!”

The Waialua High School robotics team was just named regional champ, beat 54 teams at the international Festival de Robotique in Montreal last month and they will be traveling to Houston in April for the world championship. In fact, this team has qualified for the world championship every year since 2001, and they’ve won robotics competitions all over the U.S. and in Australia, China and Japan.

Credit for the team’s glory goes to Glenn Lee, an affable electrical engineer who originally took a teaching job as a way to support himself through business school. He led a competitive electric car building and racing team, and was excited when a robotics team from California visited the school in Waialua, Hawaii, almost 20 years ago. Instead of moving on in his career, as he had originally planned, he stayed to help found the school’s first robotics team — a first for the entire state.

Lee says he’s proud his teams are known as fierce competitors, but his mission is larger than building the best machines. “The goal is not necessarily to get them interested in robotics — it’s just a carrot to get them interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” he says. When the program started, hardly any graduates continued to study STEM subjects in college. Last year, dozens of robotics students did.

For inspiring so many students, Lee competed with 30,000 teachers from across the globe for the $1 million 2018 Global Teacher Prize by the Varkey Foundation, and was the sole teacher from the United States to make it to the final round. Lee felt exalted as he sat on stage at the award ceremony in Dubai two weeks ago with celebrities, including Charlize Theron, Trevor Noah and Al Gore in attendance. After hobnobbing with nine other finalists and a slate of movie stars and politicians, Lee didn’t take home the pot of gold, but he had a profound realization. As a teacher who is not paid for his time teaching robotics, and must raise more than $200,000 each year to support the program, he’s concerned about public funding priorities. “The teacher is the most important person in any education system,” he says. “We need to stop trying to repair education. There are a lot of proven practices. The problem is we need to support it.”

Credit: Courtesy Isabelle Jette

Trevor Noah, Glenn Lee and Charlize Theron at the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2018 awards gala in Dubai

In the tiny town of Waialua, on the North Shore of Oahu, he’s a tireless energizer. The historic sugar plantation that employed Lee’s Korean grandfather and so many others, closed down two decades ago. The school’s enrollment has dwindled ever since, as families have moved away. The population is less than 4,000. Half of the students don’t have a computer or Internet at home, and many have never been outside their hometown. “A lot of kids don’t ever leave our community, so they don’t aspire to anything bigger,” Lee says.

Lee starts with middle schoolers, helping 7th graders build confidence and enthusiasm with easier projects. The high school varsity team now has 30 students. For them, a robotics challenge is issued each January, and the students are given six weeks to work on it. Then they seal their work and bring it to the meets, where they collaborate with other teams and answer questions from judges. This year the students are competing with their hand-built 150-pound remote control robots that must place large cubes on top of small scales, some high off the ground, avoiding knocking off any cubes in the process. Lee credits the 350 long hours spent building robots after school and on weekends for their continued success. “We convinced our kids it’s cool and it’s fun,” he says.

Credit: Courtesy Isabelle Jette

Global Teacher Prize 2018 finalists

The first two years the team qualified for the world championship, they didn’t have the funds to make the trip. A story in the local newspaper led to support from the Dole Plantation, including the $5,000 registration fee, snacks to sell and cases and cases of pineapples to give to other teams and event coordinators.

Despite the team’s results, funding continues to be tight. “I have to have a different job — it’s not my day job,” says Lee, 47, who is married and has two young daughters. He works a full-time job as the technical education coordinator, overseeing everything from woodshop to fine arts. As soon as this competition season is over, he’ll be hosting a luau for 650 supporters, including politicians and business leaders from Honolulu. He’ll also be writing grants and leading other fundraising efforts.

In the summer, Lee and his students invite delegations from other schools in Hawaii, and as far away as China and Australia, to week-long workshops on robotics and fundraising, complete with luau and hula dancing. He says it helps his team to have worthy competitors, and he reports that Hawaii now has more than 750 robotics programs.

Lee’s efforts have had an indelible impact. One student produced team videos and then went on to film school in New York on scholarship. Another, Brianna Acosta, became Miss Hawaii USA in 2013, calling herself a “total nerd” who is “seriously into robotics,” and advocating publicly for STEM education.

Malcolm Menor, who graduated from the program in 2006, is now an engineer working on maintaining and modernizing the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines in Pearl Harbor alongside three others from his high school robotics team. He says his Filipino parents, a grocery store cashier and an auto mechanic, did encourage their sons to go to college, but the robotics team was the springboard. Now one brother is an engineer working on combat systems and the other has a PhD in data science. Menor comes back to the high school to mentor robotics students with an eye out for future nuclear engineering recruits who might one day fill the shortage. He also goes back to Lee for advice. “It’s about more than robotics,” he says.