Bucks for Brains Students Travel to Japan

By: Jeff Worley
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The often disparate worlds of art and engineering came together this summer for two UK mechanical engineering students. Seniors Loretta Kwan and Marc Harik were chosen to participate in the university’s Bucks for Brains Summer Research Program, which provides students with hands-on experience in research through a UK/Japan exchange program. The two traveled to Nagoya, Japan, where the Aichi Institute of Technology hosted a 10-day manufacturing research camp. Twenty-five students from Korea, China and Japan also attended the engineering workshop.

Kwan and Harik, who each received a $3,500 stipend, worked under professor Kozo Saito, the UK Tennessee Valley Authority Professor of Mechanical Engineering, in this program supported by Bucks for Brains. More formally known as the Research Challenge Trust Fund, Bucks for Brains was established in 1997 by the Kentucky legislature to support and expand a wide range of research programs at the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and Kentucky’s six regional universities.

The focus of this research camp was the building and operation of Karakuri ningyo, mechanized puppets or automata. These puppet-robots have been built since the 18th century in Japan, the earliest devices used as tea-servers.

“I’d always wanted to go to Japan,” Kwan says. “As I researched a little about traditional Japanese karakuri dolls and what we would be doing at the workshop, I got even more excited. As a hobby, I love doing art, and the karakuri workshop was a great way to incorporate art and engineering.”

At the workshop, the students met with Tamaya Shobei, a Karakuri Master, who demonstrated both his completed and partially built karakuris. “His karakuri doll that shoots a bow and arrow was the most impressive,” says Harik. “I’d never seen a handmade piece of artistic machinery that moved with such precision and grace.”

After being shown a number of these dolls in various stages of completion, the students were split into teams of five and asked to build a karakuri of their own. “Since all the pieces had to fit exactly with each other, it was crucial to communicate well with each other,” says Harik. “Applying principles I learned in over 40 hours of engineering classes is a nice feeling, even if it’s making a simple pulley-based doll.” He adds that he was no stranger to such group work, since at UK engineering students routinely form study groups to help each other with homework, exams and engineering projects.

Kwan says the experience was unique and rewarding. “The Aichi Institute of Technology was amazingly generous. The professors there would even take Marc and me around town on various tours, and to shops, rice fields, and historic graveyards.” On the last day of workshop, all the students involved received gifts from the institute, and everyone was “blown away by this generosity,” Kwan adds. “We were given enamel cell phone charms, a karakuri kit, and an autographed karakuri photobook by Tamaya Shobei, among other things.”

Harik says that none of this would have happened without the hard work of Saito and Bessie Guerrant, director of the Office of Research Assessment and Student Research Programs at UK. “Dr. Saito has connections with AIT, handled our entrance into the program, and explained its importance to everyone involved. Bessie helped us work out a travel proposal so we could be partially funded for this, and her excitement—for us—was contagious."

photo of Loretta Kwan and Marc Harik in rice field

UK mechanical engineering seniors Marc Harik and Loretta Kwan in a rice field during the 10-day research camp in Japan

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full photo of bow and arrow doll

Karakuri ningyo, puppet-robots, have been built since the 18th century in Japan. The earliest devices were used as tea-servers.

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detail photo of bow and arrow doll

Tamaya Shobei, a Karakuri Master, demonstrates his karakuri doll that shoots a bow and arrow.

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detail photo of pulleys inside bow and arrow doll

Tamaya Shobei shows the doll's underlying pulley system.

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photo of student team with doll

Loretta Kwan (kneeling) and the other students on her team gather around their karakuri doll.

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photo of student group

Twenty-five students from Korea, China, Japan, and the United States attended the research camp.

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photo of students at Osu Temple

The students visit Osu Temple.

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