Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

August 29, 2012

Thank You Very Much, Mr. Roboto

By Glenn Lee (HI '11)

2011 Hawaii Milken Educator Glenn Lee left a clear career path to engineer superstardom and created one of the most intense high school robotics programs in the country.

I wasn't supposed to be here.

With a degree in electrical engineering, a minor in math from the University of Hawaii and a job interning at Hawaiian Electric Company, I had thought that my career would stay the path it'd been set on since elementary school: I was going to be an engineer.

But a part-time job as a banquet waiter changed all this.

To supplement my income while in school, I took on shifts as a server at the Honolulu Country Club. There, on an otherwise average Friday afternoon in 1994, I worked an event for the Hawaii Department of Education administrators. A chance conversation with a school principal led me to a job interview that Monday. On Tuesday, I started my new career.

With no formal training in education and no classroom training besides teaching summer school math, I had to learn on the job and -- like many new teachers -- I relied on my colleagues in the science department as I began to pick up on effective classroom management strategies and assess students' performances, while also addressing the Hawaii Content and Performance Standards.

Team Spirit

As a math and science teacher, I was given the opportunity to teach several content areas, including Advanced Placement physics, pre-calculus, algebra and physical science classes. I enjoyed teaching from a hands-on approach, and believed that students would retain the knowledge and skills learned in the classroom if given the opportunity to apply and problem-solve their work.

But the greatest measure of my students' work is participation in competitions at the school, district, state, national and international levels. Aside from the students' success in the Hawaii State Science and Engineering Fair, Advanced Placement exams, and the Hawaiian Electric Electron Marathon, they have made a name for themselves in the VEX and the For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology (FIRST) robotics programs. In fact, my students are trendsetters; my school had the first organized robotics program in Hawaii, which now has over 450 teams.

Throughout all of the challenges of coordinating and teaching robotics in a rural community school -- Waialua is one of the smallest, most isolated public schools in the state -- our team never makes excuses for our shortcomings. Instead, we always embrace the challenge of finding solutions to problems. We understood that in order to be successful, we just had to work longer hours, spend more time problem-solving, and dig deeper in our commitment towards finding support. My team even finds time to provide mentorship and outreach services to new and existing teams from other schools.


Community Involvement

The robotics team's accolades aren't theirs alone. Long-lasting business partnerships, parents, expert mentors from various fields in STEM, dedicated teachers from both science and the Hawaii Department of Education's Career Technical Education program (formerly known as Vocational Education), and -- most importantly -- former robotics students, allow us to be successful and provide our students the avenue to thrive beyond high school.

Currently, our program also has the daunting task of raising over $100,000 per school year to meet operational costs and program goals. Costs include robot materials, equipment/supplies, shop maintenance, travel expenses and outreach services to support other robotics teams. Travel costs are enormous, as we compete nationwide and in Japan. Our team is planning to attend a new robotics tournament regional in Calgary, Alberta, in April 2013 and is gearing up already in preparation of that event.


Mouse over each photo to see Glenn Lee in action.

  • Glenn Lee works at one of the smallest, most isolated schools in the state of Hawaii, yet his robotics team is one of the most successful.
  • The Waialua High School Robotics Team received first place in the 2012 Hawaii Regional For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology (FIRST) robotics program.
  • Glenn Lee and his students travel across the United States and to Japan and Canada to participate in robotics championships.


Some of our sponsors who consistently support our team include The McInerny Foundation, Castle & Cooke/Dole Plantation Hawaii, the Waialua Federal Credit Union, and the R.M. Towill Foundation -- a large civic engineering firm. What started as $100 donations from some of these groups has become what we call a "Platinum-Level" sponsorship that brings in as much as $20,000 per sponsor. We still reflect on the early years when we "fundraised ourselves to death" and appreciate the level of support we receive today. It allows our team to focus more on learning opportunities and lending support in the Hawaii robotics community. Our program is run like a business; every member is held accountable and given a unique role. If someone doesn't do his or her part, the entire program suffers. Students are given the opportunity to take on leadership roles and ownership in their respective areas. Collaboration, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills are emphasized in a Socratic questioning environment to clarify thoughts and battle assumptions, much like the real world. Often times, students are impatient and want the "one right answer." We try to enable students into taking the initiative to consistently question whether solutions are realistic, viable and reasonable given their situations. Students in the program develop both long and short-term solutions to meet the goals of robotic challenges and tasks. Workplace readiness skills are enforced to help students prepare for post-secondary aspirations and careers.

Glenn Lee's Guide to Success:

  • Everything that I did in the classroom revolved around culminating events and performances. Our program is unique and our school officials are supportive in setting up a curriculum and schedule that meet our needs.
  • A true measure of a high school teacher's work is what his or her students take with them as they finish high school and pursue their post-secondary ambitions. The most important level of support for our program is from the student alumni who come back to help.
  • It's important to create opportunities for students to realize their potential and show them how they can overcome their shortcomings and challenges.

After participation in 12 seasons of the FIRST Robotics program, the Waialua High School Robotics Team #359 -- aka the Hawaiian Kids -- won the Championship Chairman's Award in April 2011. This award was given as the highest overall out of the 4,400 teams from around the world that have participated in FIRST. The Chairman's Award represents the spirit of FIRST and honors the team that, in the judges' estimation, best represents a model for other teams to emulate.

We have transformed our rural old plantation community by creating an environment where science and technology are celebrated and where our young team members dream of becoming leaders in science and technology. We have engaged them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication and leadership. As a result, we are in the FIRST Hall of Fame.

For more information about FIRST Robotics and Glenn Lee's robotics team, check out and For information about starting a robotics program at your school, contact Glenn Lee at


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