Mark Leon: Helping Kids Build a Better Robot
Credit: Peter Hoey
The Daring Dozen Q&A
Who are your role models?
It all starts at home. Leon's late mother, Juana, taught him that we are only limited by our imagination and our compassion. His father, Joseph, a history teacher, programmed Leon at birth that getting a college degree was a fundamental requirement and that if we don't know our history we will repeat it.
Yosh Uchida, San Jose State University judo coach, told him, "You are a student of many and a master of none; focus for four years and I will make you a national champion." And he did.
About Mike McMaster, his former father-in-law, a self-made millionaire, Leon says: "He told me to stake my job when no one believed that my design for transmitting live video from Antarctica was feasible. I asked him what would happen if I failed. He laughed and said, 'Well, then you lose your job, you dummy. People live in fear. Without credentials, people will not back you unless they believe you have something at stake and the courage to see it through.' I told him I didn't want to lose my job. He said, 'Then don't fail!'"
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
- It's all about the math.
- We must put more into the bowl of life than we take.
- Life isn't fair, so don't let it stop you.
- Standing in the future allows for clairvoyance.
- A true friend wants for you not from you.
- Believing that something is impossible doesn't make it true.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
I really like what Hannibal said before crossing the Alps to attack Rome: "We will either find a way or make one." I am not condoning his actions but acknowledging his profound proclamation, which by virtue of his vision allowed an army to do the impossible.
More to Explore:
Mark Leon has a serious -- and seriously exotic -- mission: to help produce enough PhD roboticists to handle the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's missions through 2020. That explains his blue hair (he uses a temporary liquid dye), his pennant-waving dashes around makeshift battlefields, and his frenzied exhortations to teams of young competitors that "it's all about the math!"
As director of NASA's Robotics Alliance Project (RAP) since 1998, his primary aim is to excite kids about technology. RAP supports classroom education and sets up student contests through the space agency's ten research centers, including the Ames Research Center, in California's Silicon Valley, where Leon works. Over the years, more than 100,000 secondary school students -- working with adult mentors from NASA, private industry, and higher-education institutions -- have constructed robots that shoot volleyballs into a target and meet other, more pragmatic, goals.
Leon administers the project's paperwork. But he thrives on working with the kids, too, whether coaching teams or hamming it up as emcee at many regional and national robotics contests. His "primary personal contribution is motivation and leadership," says Joe Hering, Leon's partner as RAP's coordinator. "Kids really respect Mark Leon."
During forty regional competitions nationwide and a few international contests, up to 3,000 students at each site "have two days in which they'll hear me blather on about math and science," Leon jokes.
His blue hair -- dyed to match his NASA jacket -- makes Leon easy to spot in a live Webcast from a spring regional contest in Las Vegas. Several thousand students on a couple hundred teams have had six weeks to design and program robots for Rack and Roll, a game comparable to a giant ring toss. Their bots -- outfitted with wheels, arms, and pincers -- must score by landing inflated plastic swim rings on a multitiered rack resembling a big monkey bar with prongs.
Leon introduces the Red Alliance and the Blue Alliance, each representing three high school teams. Each team has a robot, meaning six devices take the floor for the three-minute matches. "All right, let's shake things up!" Leon shouts. "Three, two, one -- go, go, go!" The alliances send out their bots, which grab red or blue rings and hurtle toward the goal. Leon gives the play-by-play as bots collide and knock off rings. "There's a major battle going on," he intones. "Looks like five in a row for the Red Alliance!" The match ends with a 5-1 score.
Leon leaps up aisles and sprints between sides, still fit from years of martial arts training: He won a silver medal in the 1985 Collegiate National Judo Championships, and he mentors youngsters in tae kwon do. He stopped competing, he says, "but I still do an occasional lecture or demonstration. I'm good for a fight, but sometimes when I get up in the morning, the bones ache. I had three teeth knocked out, ribs broken, lacerations, hyperextensions, sprains."
Growing up in a tough East San Jose neighborhood, Leon learned protective measures early -- and indirectly found his way to engineering. "I used to get jumped a lot and beaten up by gangs -- I had to sneak to school every day," he recalls, chuckling. He took refuge in the library. "Everyone was doing homework, and I got bored, so I started doing mine. As a result, I started getting straight As. That changed my life."
Leon routinely reaches out to at-risk youth, either through his NASA project or as a volunteer teaching rocket science to community groups. Remembering how much being in a group of rocketry enthusiasts meant to him when he was in sixth grade, he launched the NASA Rocket Club for middle school students in 1990. "We started this to give kids an alternative to drugs and violence," Leon explains. "I've had kids come back and thank me." (Leon is on hiatus from the club this year to concentrate on a couple other projects.)
Building rockets and robots bolsters youngsters' academic and social skills -- and bridges divides, Leon says. He cites an example that, he says, "still makes me cry a little bit": In 1999, he'd mentored teams from an alternative high school in central San Jose and another in East San Jose. When the former group won the Silicon Valley Division, two gang members from opposing teams, Leon reports, "gave each other hugs afterward. On the streets, they would have killed each other."
His dedication has drawn accolades. Last year, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a nonprofit organization that promotes education and careers, honored Leon for his work on behalf of students. (FIRST is among several partners in RAP student competitions.) And Hispanic Engineer and Information Technology magazine named him among its 100 Most Important Hispanics in technology and business for 2006. Leon also has been recognized for completing the first audiovisual link to Antarctica and for implementing the first high-speed Internet connection to the Arctic.
These tributes pale beside Leon's favorite reward: witnessing students who "suddenly realize their own brilliance," he says. "When these students get the connection between the physics of the motors and electricity, the math becomes meaningful for them. That's a priceless transformation for a student."
Next article in "The Daring Dozen 2007" > Claudette Morton