EAST LAKE — Electrical engineer Jim Kendall saw the sign outside the East Lake Community Library as he was starting a road trip to celebrate his recent retirement from Honeywell.
"I glanced up and saw the sign that said the library was looking for volunteers for a new Legos robotics program. I looked over at my wife and told her that I thought it was something I could do,'' said Kendall, 63.
The Friends of the East Lake Library raised $3,500 to purchase eight Lego Mindstorm kits to start a middle school robotics program. But they needed an engineer, and someone who could coordinate the program.
"So I went to the first meeting to help, and I realized they had the equipment, but they actually needed someone to run it," he said.
"It's been an interesting retirement — good, but interesting.''
Since the robotics program started last fall, more than two dozen middle-schoolers have participated. And now, Kendall has agreed to take it to the next level.
On March 20, the Florida Robotics Alliance asked Kendall to join its board of directors. The group is based at Hillsborough Community College in Brandon and includes engineers from 12 counties on Florida's west coast.
The mission of the Florida Robotics Alliance is to create hubs in different regions, founded on the principles of Best Robotics, a project-based STEM program headquartered at Auburn University.
"We want to bring robotics and competition to everyone throughout the area,'' said Ken Fiallos, the organization's director.
What this means for the East Lake library is more educational and marketing resources for its robotics program, as well as a chance for participants to join in more robotics competitions around the Tampa Bay area, Fiallos said.
And the advantage for the Robotics Alliance is they get Jim Kendall.
"What is really unusual about East Lake and Jim Kendall when compared to others involved is that he seems to have an easier time finding mentors compared to the rest of us,'' said Fiallos. "We'd like Jim to help build a Pinellas hub. We need him over there.''
There goes Kendall's leisurely retirement.
"Whatever I can do to help advance robotics, I'll be happy to help,'' said Kendall. "Robots are becoming a part of our daily life, and it's important to educate."
Although there are already many school-based robotics programs, as well as several successful robotics competitions in Pinellas County, including the Robofest held in Oldsmar earlier this month, the strength of the library's program is that it "… can reach deeper into the community,'' Kendall said.
"Historically, the schools have had a tendency to take the cream of the crop for robotics, whereas we take a different approach. (Students) can come in on their own time, and at their own level,'' he said.
"And I like the Best (Robotics) system because it includes competition, but it also includes teaching the student the importance of a business plan. This is a way for kids to explore engineering as a career,'' he said.
On Monday, their first day of spring break from Dunedin Highland Middle School, two participants in the library's winter robotics session, Jay and Viraj Mithani, got up early and headed to the library. They competed in a Lego Robotics Challenge, marking the completion of the session.
Kendall gave them three attempts to send their robots around an obstacle course.
In the end, the score would be 3 to 0, with Viraj, 11, beating his big brother Jay, 13.
But Jay was okay with his younger brother's win.
"His robot won because I made mine go too fast,'' he said. "I'm just doing this for fun, and also, I'm thinking that this will help me if I decide to be an engineer.''
Just hearing that made Kendall clap and grin as he helped pack up the equipment.
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.