Freshman year of high school, Joy Uehara joined the Da Vinci School’s robotics team. She wasn’t the engineer in the family — or so she thought — but she wanted an opportunity to challenge herself and to get to know more of her classmates. The only freshman to join the design team that year, Uehara fell in love not just with robotics, but with the mechanics and architecture of engineering systems.
“It was an amazing feeling to see something I designed from scratch do what it was supposed to do and look like what I had designed it to be,” Uehara said. “It was exciting, and gave me the confidence that I could do this.”
Today, Uehara, a mechanical engineering junior at USC Viterbi School of Engineering, still works with that team — as a mentor. Through the youth organization, FIRST, Uehara has partnered with three high school teams: team 4201 in El Segundo, team 691 in Santa Clarita and team 597 near USC’s University Park Campus. With each team, she plays a different role, from administrative and logistical organization to technical support and troubleshooting, like offering trainings on computer-aided design or identifying issues resulting from on-the-fly assembly processes. She even works with the feeder middle school LEGO Robotics teams in the fall.
“A lot of mentoring at the middle school level, for example, is teaching fundamentals like if you run a program and it doesn’t work how to tweak and troubleshoot it,” Uehara said.
For the younger students, Uehara was the first to introduce them to mathematical concepts like pi. “I got to show them why math matters,” she said. “And how it can impact something like how a robot’s arm will rotate.”
Every spring, Uehara helps teams prepare for the annual FIRST Robotics Competition — work that was featured in “More Than Robots,” a documentary recently released by Disney, that follows the Da Vinci Schools team, team 4201 — the Vitruvian Bots — and three other teams as they prepare for the 2020 competition.
“The documentary follows a team from Mexico, a team from Japan and two teams from California,” Uehara said. Following the teams of teenagers, the documentary covers more than technical work or accolades, but the world of cooperation, collaboration, persistence and coordination that helps bring these kids to the finish line. Uehara notes that a key dynamic at play is that between the Vitruvian Bots and the other California team, 6904, as they exchange tools, knowledge and support in the leadup to competition.
This exchange, she says, is one she hopes to fuel as she graduates into her professional career and settles even deeper into her mentorship role. The facility the Vitruvian Bots occupy, she said, offers a wealth of tools that several teams in the area already are able to share. As a mentor, she also sometimes lends one-off assistance to these visiting teams. But her hope is to grow these partnerships and have the 4201 facility become an areawide hub for any teams that need support — whether with regards to troubleshooting, machining parts or training on core concepts.
“Along with several other mentors, I have the dream of building up the facility so that every team in the area knows what we offer and thinks first of coming to us for what they need. I want to be able to have as many teams as possible share in the wealth of our resources,” she said.
Uehara, whose dad works as a manager at the Keck School of Medicine of USC in IT learned early on about leadership and management. She says that while many of her engineering classmates joined campus clubs for hands-on learning experiences, she leveraged her leadership experiences with FIRST to become a mentor and get more hands-off management experience that most students can’t really get till they work in a build team for a few years or join the workforce.
“In the aerospace industry, systems engineers are responsible for ensuring the whole product comes together. So they work with the customer and find out what they want and communicate and coordinate with other engineers to create the final product,” Uehara said. “I am learning and practicing these skills early.”
Uehara is enrolled in USC’s Progressive Degree Program for a systems architecting and engineering master’s. Whether with mentorship or in her career in aerospace industries — Uehara has completed back-to-back internships with Raytheon Technologies — she wants to help solve problems, whether mechanical or team-specific, that help move projects to their finish lines.
“Whether it’s two students arguing because both want to do the task they think is most important or a student who is experiencing low morale and engagement, these are problems seen at the management level that I’m here to assuage,” Uehara says. “It’s about how can we address the root of the problem.”
The documentary featuring the Vitruvian Bots is now out and the trailer can be seen here.
Published on May 4th, 2022
Last updated on May 4th, 2022