BA/MBA Student's Robotics Lab at Willamette

by University Communications,

Standing before the machine swaddled in electrical wire, Nilo Thomas (current BA/MBA student) grabs the control box and flips a switch.

The motor starts to hum. The lights glow, and the claw jerks to life.

“We built this in 14 hours one night,” Thomas ’13, MBA '14 says about his underwater robot, “Nemo”. “Everything worked. Then we blew a fuse and had to wait until the next day to fix it. From that I learned to always carry spare parts.”

Spurred by curiosity and an unbridled enthusiasm for technology, Thomas started Bearcat Robotics at Willamette University more than a year ago. When he began, he had five members. Now he has 25.

Thomas says his purpose is to expose science technology to students of all ages — hoping some will join the next generation of innovators.

“In this country, we need leaders in science technology,” Thomas says. “I wanted to implement that here, at a liberal arts school, where the club would be talked about and appreciated.”

Through Bearcat Robotics, Willamette students are immersed in competition-based programs. They promote math, science and technology at area elementary and middle schools, and they learn about marketing, fundraising and technology.

Last year, the club built a robot that works under water and entered it in a national competition in Arizona. Although they didn’t win, they’re not giving up. This summer, they hope to enter two racing robots in the same competition.

“None of us really knew how to build a robot, but we did it anyway,” Thomas says about his first project. “Now, we’ve proven that we can build something, and people want to become involved.”

Promising Start

A native of Phoenix, Thomas grew up in a poor, divisive community. But through an innovative robotics program at his inner-city high school, students of varying backgrounds pooled their talent to become national champions.

Buoyed by his earlier successes, Thomas aspired to start a similar club as a college student. By being named a Bill and Melinda Gates Scholar, he received the financial freedom to attend the school of his choice.

He chose Willamette for both his BA and his MBA.

“Willamette felt right,” says Thomas, a sociology major and a BA/MBA student at the Atkinson Graduate School of Management. “I knew I would have a voice here and that I’d be heard.”

Attracting interest

Actively involved in numerous multi-cultural organizations — such as the Native American Enlightenment Association, the Hawaii Club, CAUSA and Alianza — Thomas added to his responsibilities by forming the Bearcat Robotics club last year.

Admittedly, Thomas says he isn’t a robotics expert. But his excitement to try new things has helped attract others to the organization — including Jullian Haley ’16 and Kyle McSwain ’16.

Both Haley and McSwain say they enjoy the club because of the opportunity to build robots and connect with like-minded students. They’re also energized by Thomas’ personality, which they describe as positive and outgoing.

“Nilo keeps things fun and interesting. He always has something to say,” says McSwain, adding that he’s inspired by results. “When the final product actually works, it’s a great feeling.”

Haley agrees, adding that the club is much more fun than he had imagined.

“Every time I come here, I learn something new,” he says. “I’m interested in seeing how all circuit boards work and how everything fits together. It makes you look at technology in a whole new way.”

Molding Young Minds

Besides influencing his peers at Willamette, Thomas is embracing a mentorship role at local elementary schools.

At Bush Elementary, for example, he’s worked with youths to build and program Lego robots. Soon, he hopes to increase his involvement and recruit the help of other Willamette students.

“The project helps promote innovation and learning, how to do things faster and better,” Thomas says. “Working with the kids is a lot of fun.”

As for his other goals, Thomas wants to bolster club membership, foster self-confidence and leadership among his teammates and expose Willamette students to marketing and fundraising opportunities.

People don’t need to know how to use a soldering gun or wire a circuit board to join the club, Thomas says, but they must have the desire to learn.

“Building our first robot made my team realize we are not experts, but we can do something. We can make it work,” Thomas says. “We’ve really developed a sense of community.”

For more information on Bearcat Robotics, contact Nilo Thomas at