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Spotlight: Steven Paley, MS '83

Building Robots--and Confidence

Photo: Bill Cardoni

ROBO MOJO: Paley helps students with special needs learn engineering.

By Julia James

Consider the ever-present jumble of wires, sensors, motors, gears and unassembled Lego blocks; take into account the fact that the students tasked with bestowing order on these components have special needs. It's no wonder that, in Steven Paley's classroom, "low frustration tolerance" is public enemy No. 1.

Paley, a former chief technology officer in high tech, is the founder of a one-man show he calls Arise Technologies, based in Paramus, N.J. "Kind of a wild idea" by his own admission, the Applied Robotics Instruction for Special Education program brings robotics and engineering courses to students with autism, Down's syndrome or other developmental disabilities. Schools provide space, equipment and kids; volunteer Paley brings expertise, enthusiasm and a willingness to roll with the punches. The work was inspired in part by his 25-year-old daughter, who has autism.

In 2006, motivated by his personal history of innovation (he holds nine patents) and two years of running Arise, Paley began work on a book. The Art of Invention (Prometheus) walks readers through the creative process of discovery and design, from first step (identifying a problem) to last (obtaining a patent)—and across the soul-sucking bogs ("periods of latency") that come between. The text is dedicated to Edward Paley, the author's father, also an inventor.

"Are we always creative? Is constant creativity necessary for invention? The answer, of course, is no," Paley writes. But creativity, he continues, stems from unconscious connections and erupts on a timeline beyond our control. A successful entrepreneur has patience and the ability to move back and forth between "a certain amount of rationality" and "the more mysterious and ephemeral ways of our subconscious mind."

Paley earned his master's degree in engineering at Stanford, where he worked with David Kelley, MS '78, and Bill Moggridge, two founders of the Palo Alto design firm IDEO. Writing wasn't an art he aspired to. "It's funny," he says. "I always considered myself a classic engineer and illiterate."

But, after venturing away from the design loft for a mandatory composition course, he embraced the written word and went on to take creative writing courses with poet Denise Levertov and others.

Paley hopes to shepherd his own students through similarly reaffirming experiences. At the beginning of a course, he says, his kids never "think they can do" the work that lies ahead. The daunting tasks include the construction of lightweight crash-carts capable of surviving a ride down a steep slope and a fall to the floor, teaching robots to navigate an obstacle course, and making machines as fast and strong as they can be with smart use of gears and pulleys.

But, weeks or even months into a project, something starts to click. Pieces are joined; microcomputers get programmed. A sumobot or a robo-vac comes to life. "Self-esteem," Paley says, "is built on experiences like that."

Julia James, ’06, MA ’11, is a science writer based in Palo Alto.

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