Hope for the Future

Photos By Eleanor Guerrero Retired engineer Ken Whistler is sparking the creative spirit of Red Lodge kids by using science to inspire a passionate curiosity about life.

Former electrical engineer Ken Whistler came to Red Lodge for peace and quiet. “I retired, bought my dream home. So you know how it goes. You get up, have your coffee, look at the mail-and then say, ‘Now what?’” He made the decision to “invest in Red Lodge”-in their children, to be exact, and in such a way to bring hope for the future.

Whistler just “showed up” last July, at the Boys and Girls Club of Carbon County and said, “I want to help!” said Executive Director, Dana Castellani. Through a grant to the Club, they had some funding to teach kids about fun with engineering and technology through the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program.

Rokenbok Education is a nonprofit whose mission according to their website is “to help all school-age children prepare for a lifetime of learning about science and technology. Rokenbok’s STEM education program levels the playing field for underserved children; provides deep, project-based learning for all students; makes STEM easier for educators to teach; and is highly cost effective for schools and youth programs.”

STEM provides applied technology and engineering learning experiences for school-age students. It states, “It allows teachers and youth service providers to become confident STEM mentors.”

But the mentor was already confident. “It’s about the person,” said Castellani. “We had the supplies. He has the vision!”

The kids are working with Lego robots, moving fingers “which they kids thought were creepy at first” said Whistler, and writing with 3D doodling “in the air” and creating objects from their art on a 3D printer. The kids no longer find the finger creepy. Whistler said, “It’s not creepy; it’s how your hand works!” They had photos of the kids made into 3D models from the printer. “We’re going to make it real.” They are now excited about engineering and science.

Whistler is a whirl of energy and passion. “We’re going with ‘Robot Vision’,” he explained. “We are having a vision for where we’re going with robots and what we can do with kids.” He said, “We have a ski season, a tourist season, why not an engineering season? I was an answer in search of a question.”

Whistler showed a map of all the kids’ robotic events for National Robotics Week, April 8-16. The area of Montana was wide open. Nothing was happening. “We can put Montana on the map! Whatever we do will define robotics for Montana-thank you very much!” he said with a laugh. He wants a booth for them to do Lego Robots and a telepresence-

like exploring Mars-simulating the land with a base of sand and rocks. “This doesn’t normally happen,” said Castellani with a smile.

Whistler doesn’t want to turn out engineers. “I want to turn out ideas!” What does Whistler get in return? He said, “It makes me forget I’m retired. I’m 65. Working with these kids, you learn something every day. They learn something. It’s a good deal!”

He marveled at the girls’ different perspective on science. With an electronic kit a boy might immediately want to do battle. A girl, he says, “wants to help someone. They think so differently. If there’s six print outs for kids to work with and more kids show up, he said the boys think, “You’re too late!” but the girls think, “Let’s print six more!” He is adamant, “Everybody gets exposed to this stuff! Everybody gets their hands on this, gets to make something.”

Whistler is restoring skills that are being lost, now updated to hi tech. “Just do it,” he says. “You can draw in space. Nobody’s doing architectural drawing.”

There was a Nasa Space Challenge earlier. He submitted 10 ideas from 10 kids. They didn’t win but he said that’s not the point. “It’s a long term plan. Let’s get kids turned out-not to win” but in building robots, “to get together, to think about something.”

He wants to spark their creativity. “One you’re an engineer-you can’t shut this thing down-you’re over the edge!”

He loves watching their different methods and ways of thing. “You have one kid that stays back and then act. Then there’s a girl who just jumps in 100 mph. She could end up being a race car driver!”

The kids told him they wanted to make a robot sandwich maker. “I said, ‘Yes, we can do that! Make it out of Legos!’”

Another important part is to make scientists who care, those who have empathy and seek to help people. He believes it is important to start somewhere. “You can’t expect to know how to build a circuit board” and just love science. “You have to plant seeds. Here, they learn how you do it; how to get there.”