A Sign of Hope: Megan Kobayashi ’19 Inspires Deaf Students with Robotics

By Alayna Kobayashi ’14

In the robotics classroom at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind (HSDB), a table was covered with wires, gears and robot pieces. I sat in the back of the classroom in awe as I watched my younger sister, Megan Kobayashi ’19, communicating with deaf students using American Sign Language (ASL).

In a flurry of signs, Megan asked a student to press a key on his computer. Touching his fingers to the keyboard, the boy’s face lit up as he realized that the code he wrote caused the motor on a robot to come to life. The students quickly shifted their focus back to Megan, so she could explain what had happened. An animated discussion ensued, and I saw a quiet smile of satisfaction settle on my sister’s face. Although the only audible sound in the room was the faint whir of the robot’s motor, Megan’s presence resonated loud and clear.

Seeing my sister today, it’s hard to imagine she used to be quiet and introverted. Her former sixth-grade teacher, Jonathan Koshiba ’94, once commented, “I wish I could have a whole class of Megans. It would be very quiet, but it would be a great class.”

Megan and her mother, Danette Kobayashi (left), educational technologist with Punahou’s Design Thinking, Technology and Fabrication Department, work with robotics students at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind.

Megan spent her early years at Punahou dabbling in various extracurricular activities that ranged from dancing, to tennis and gymnastics, to playing the clarinet in the fifth-grade band. One of the most incredible things about Punahou is that it has the facilities, resources and faculty mentors to support students wherever their passions lie. All of these experiences led Megan to discover her passion for robotics, and her home on campus became the Punahou Robotics lab. Megan is fortunate to be one of the many students who has benefited from Punahou’s Robotics Program and the mentorship of teachers Aaron Dengler and Justin Lai.

I remember one afternoon in the recently inaugurated D. Kenneth Richardson ’48 Learning Lab when Dengler walked up to the newly installed water jet machine and called to my sister from across the room, “Come on, Megan! Let’s get this thing started up!” Megan hesitated for a split second, but then eagerly joined him alongside the large and incredibly complex machine. In that small interaction, I saw how his confidence in students empowers them to rise to the occasion, even surprising themselves with what they can accomplish.

Thanks to his mentorship, I watched my sister’s transformation into a confident and poised young woman. Megan now fearlessly operates complicated machinery as the Robotics Team’s lead welder and as a certified student worker in Punahou’s design lab. She represents Punahou and Hawai‘i in international robotics competitions, and raises funds for initiatives that increase children’s access to STEM opportunities throughout the state. The Punahou Robotics Program has expanded Megan’s world, helping her to recognize all that she is capable of achieving and, more importantly, all that she is capable of giving.

When Megan realized how much she benefited from robotics, she immediately thought of ways to share these opportunities with others. Megan created and ran a robotics workshop for Punahou kindergarten girls; mentored younger robotics teams; and raised $13,000 in airline sponsorships to increase Neighbor Island participation in the Hawaii FIRST Robotics competition for teams, coaches, family members and competition officials. She also worked with teammates Cole Nagata ’20, Devin Chotzen-Hartzell ’19, Andy Young ’19 and Abby Dang (homeschool ’20) to organize robotics workshops at community centers, as well as demonstrations at McDonald’s and the Honolulu Mini Makers Faire.

Alayna Kobayashi ’14 (left) is inspired by her younger sister, Megan (right), who she says has a “profound ability to love, uplift and wholeheartedly give to others.”

While all of these projects brought Megan great joy, her mission to share robotics with others reached another level in the spring of 2016, when Punahou Robotics hosted a series of workshops for Special Olympics athletes. During these workshops, Megan was partnered with Katie O’Brien, a deaf adult Special Olympics athlete with intellectual challenges. Megan had recently developed an interest in teaching herself ASL by watching YouTube videos, and she put her skills to use when communicating with Katie. Through their friendship, Megan realized that deaf people can fully participate in robotics, and she was inspired to create a robotics program for deaf children.

That summer, Megan approached Principal Angel Ramos and faculty members Tom Graham and Joshua Smith at HSDB and proposed creating a robotics team for the school’s deaf students. The school welcomed her, and together, they began to develop a robotics program, in spite of several obstacles. The students at HSDB face more challenges than most deaf students – the majority come from first-generation immigrant families, have socioeconomic difficulties, and sometimes face language barriers within their own households.

But after only a few sessions, the students’ natural talents were revealed. Megan’s Punahou Robotics teammates Cole, Devin and Abby supported the HSDB robotics team by teaching coding and fabrication. They communicated by writing on whiteboards, and this interaction between the two groups of students helped to build bridges between the hearing and deaf communities.

Many of our students see their family members work at fast food places and think that is their future, but robotics opens doors to new skills and new fields. There is something magical about it. It broke barriers that I’ve never seen broken before.

Tom Graham, HSDB Lead Coach

With the unwavering support of the Punahou Robotics Program and the HSDB faculty, the HSDB team competed in the 2017 FIRST Tech Challenge competition and placed 10th of 28 in the state. They also received the Judges’ Award for their inspiring participation in the league.

“Many of our students see their family members work at fast food places and think that is their future,” Graham, the HSDB lead coach, said. “But robotics opens doors to new skills and new fields. There is something magical about it. It broke barriers that I’ve never seen broken before.”

Through robotics, the children discovered that they were capable of excelling in areas that they previously didn’t even know existed. One member of the team is now planning to attend college and study computer science. Others plan to enter mechanical fields. Now in its second season, the HSDB Robotics Program has tripled its enrollment, doubled its number of competition teams, and will be starting an elementary school robotics program in 2019.

(From left to right) Sophie Kobayashi ’20, Megan, Elizabeth Matsumoto ’21, and Abigail Dang, who is home schooled, work on a robotics project at Punahou’s D. Kenneth Richardson ’48 Learning Lab.

Megan is now a senior with plans to attend college on the mainland, and she wants to ensure that the program can continue growing while she is away. So she has initiated a fundraising campaign and established “A SIGN of Hope Robotics Fund” with the Hawai‘i Community Foundation. The money raised will help cover the costs of robotics equipment, competition entry fees and interpreters for competitions – all to expand opportunities for deaf children and their families.

Megan says that she is able to do her work because of the incredible support from her grandparents and her extended family. Most importantly, she is grateful for the guidance, support and love from our mother, Punahou faculty Danette Kobayashi, who has taught us to work hard, be responsible and value integrity. It is her nurturing that has given us the courage to develop our dreams and strive to reach our goals.

Megan’s journey embodies Punahou’s mission to be “a private school with a public purpose,” as she has taken the skills and knowledge she gained from her Punahou experiences and shared them with the students at HSDB. Megan is fortunate to have been recognized for her service work. She had the honor of receiving the 2018 Outstanding Youth Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals Aloha Chapter in November, but she doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. For most of her life, she has heard President Jim Scott ’70 say, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” For Megan, her Punahou education is a gift, and she believes it’s her responsibility to use this gift to contribute to the community.

I am filled with gratitude and so proud to be Megan’s sister. Her profound ability to love, uplift and wholeheartedly give to others is inspiring. Although she is five years younger, I look up to and aspire to be like her. Megan might have named her fund “A SIGN of Hope,” but in my eyes, it is Megan herself who is a sign of hope for our future.

Alayna Kobayashi ‘14 is a filmmaker who currently works as an associate producer and editor at NBCUniversal Studios in Los Angeles. View the video she and Megan produced together about the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind Robotics Program below.

Additional photo caption:
Top: Megan Kobayashi ’19 teaches students at the Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind how to build a worm gear, a configuration used in robotics to reduce the speed and increase the strength of motors.

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