1977 Valedictorian: Karen Gaye (K.G.) Engelhardt

Karen Gaye (K.G.) Engelhardt has lived a very interesting life involving a number of different career pathways and she has excelled in all of them.  K.G.’s journey includes being a homemaker, restaurant manager, re-entry adult college student, robotics scientist, and eighth grade science teacher.  And for K.G. Ohlone College was a pivotal crossroads in her life’s voyage.

K.G. was born in Illinois but grew up in small towns in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri.  She married right out of high school and was blessed with three children over a four-year period.  She enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom but was clearly a lifelong learner, taking courses part time at Tulsa University and the University of Houston.

When her three children were school age, K.G. entered the workforce at a Charlie Brown’s restaurant in Houston.  She quickly moved into management and after two years was being considered as President of the company.  But, as a part-time college student K.G. had develop a deep interest in human biology and psychology.  And she had a vivid dream of pursuing those fields at Stanford University.  That was quite an aspiration for a wife, mom and restaurant manager; probably considered unthinkable by many.

K.G. was, and still is, not a person who shies away from a challenge.  So, in 1976, at the age of 35, she and her husband made the decision to locate to the Bay Area to be closer to Stanford.  K.G. recalls the decision with delight:

We came from Houston.  My goal was to go to Stanford, I was 35 and everyone laughed at me.  I knew if I took the offer (to be President) with Charlie Brown’s I would never have a shot at Stanford; so we decided in one night, packed our belongings, left two of my children with my sister in Oklahoma and headed West… a true story.  Oh yes, my dog became pregnant along the way.  People thought I was crazy but I had a wonderful, understanding husband (Bruce) and children who believed in me.

The family finally settled in Fremont and K.G. found her way to Ohlone College.  Ohlone was a convenient and reasonably priced institution and she saw that it could be a gateway to her Stanford goal.  She enrolled at Ohlone and took the place by storm.  Her innate drive and leadership skill led her to being elected as President of the student government.  She also served as Student Representative to the Board of Trustees.  These jobs did not deter her academic success.  K.G. graduated in 1977 as Valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA.  But more importantly, she had her acceptance letter from Stanford University.  Her dream was about to come true.

The family moved to Palo Alto to facilitate her attendance at Stanford.  While attending Stanford K.G. was very busy beyond her course work.  She served as a teaching assistant in the Departments of Biology and English.  Through her studies of human biology and psychology, K.G. developed an interest in the use of computers for assisting disabled and aging persons.

K.G. was chosen to work with a robotics aid research project at the Rehabilitation Center of the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Medical Center.  Working under a grant project from the Administration on Aging Grant, K.G. engaged in research on the nutritional needs of the elderly.  She then was awarded a National Science Foundation grant, one of only two to have been awarded to an undergraduate at the time, to investigate hospital-based home care for disabled elderly patients.

In addition she volunteered time to committees of the Senior Coordinating Council of Palo Alto and various community events.

In 1981, at the age of 40, K.G. graduated from Stanford with a double major in Human Biology and Psychology, with university honors, departmental distinction, and a 4.0 GPA.  Her dream had come true but she was hardly finished.

After graduation, K.G. worked for a year with Upjohn Health Care Services, Inc. in San Jose where she supervised 100 field and in-office employees involved in patient services.  She was then hired back to the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Medical Center, this time as a full time Research Health Scientist with primary duties as an evaluation supervisor for the Robotics Aid Project.  She spent the next four years exploring the use of robotics technology to assist disabled and elderly people.  This included a three-year VA grant to study the use of robots in rehabilitation technologies and disseminating the findings.

The research by K.G. and her team was featured in National Geographic, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Discover the World of Science; West German, Australian, Italian and British television; The Smithsonian, OMNI, Computers and Medicine, InfoWorld, In Vivo, Your Health, the BYTE, and Scientific American Frontiers; and the Smithsonian Institute’s “invention” series for PBS, Beyond 2000, Nova, Dateline NBC, Today Show, and the PBS People in Motion series.

In 1986 K.G. was recruited by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, PA as a Senior Research Scientist with her primary duty to be the Director of the Health and Human Services Robotics.  Her hard work and leadership led to the founding in 1989 of the Center for Human Service Robotics, of which she served as the first Director.  Her research and development focused on the application of robotic and artificial intelligence technologies for service to humans, neuroscience research, and physiological psychology.

The work of the Laboratory and Center resulted in a creation of a wide variety of hybrid robotic systems.  One was a Robotic Vocational Workstation, consisting of a robotic arm, a computer terminal and a microphone, that allowed a man with muscular dystrophy to hold a job for the first time.  K.G. designed a robot called “Ropet,” that allowed her elderly mother to remain in her own apartment instead of a nursing home, provided a security System and served as a “pet” substitute.  A robotic silverware sorter at Beaver County Medical Center reduced the potential for transmitting disease to patients.  Other innovations included a Smart Home Kitchen, a pizza-making robot, and institutional food service robots.  The Center also created robotics curriculum, cognitive retraining and reminding, and technology assessment research.

In her spare time, K.G. earned her Master’s Degree in Public Administration at Carnegie-Mellon.  She also served as President of the Robotics Society of America.  In 1986, K.G. was honored as an Ohlone College Outstanding Alumna.

K.G. was also active in private consulting while at Carnegie Mellon, specializing in human factors and technology assessment.  She worked with a spectrum of organizations providing services to disabled and aging individuals.  Clients included Transitions Research Corporations in Bethel, CT; Boeing Computer Services, Artificial Intelligence Center in Seattle, WA; and for a NASA Task Force on memory aids for cognitively impaired individuals.

In 1991 K.G. was lured away from Carnegie-Mellon to return to California to work as Manager of the Robotics Program for NASA’s Far West Regional Technology Transfer Center in Los Angeles.  She worked with NASA field centers, universities and other government laboratories to transfer robotic and sensor technologies into practical use.  While with NASA, K.G. created model demonstrations for robots in apartments and conducted research on Search and Rescue Robots for health care.

K.G. worked with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratories to develop and run robot summer camps for K-12 students.  She worked on the technical committee that created the California Science Center in Los Angeles.  She developed pre-K through 6th grade robotic education programs at the CSC.  K.G. worked jointly with the University of Southern California and developed a program for gifted high school students from all over the nation to help them understand artificial intelligence.  These students designed their own robots.  She took a team of 20 high school student from three high schools to a national robotics competition at Disney World.

During her career as a robotics scientist and researcher, K.G. produced an impressive body of publications and presentations reporting on her work and disseminating the results.  She produced 21 Journal Articles, four Book Chapters, six Government Publications, 29 Keynote / Plenary Addresses, 13 Conference Session Chairs, 75 Conference Proceedings and Presentations, 19 Workshops, Symposia, Colloquia, Seminars, and 23 Guest Lecture Appearances.  She was a member of many professional associations and the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, including selection as one of the top 100 Pittsburgers of the 20th Century by Pittsburgh Magazine.

In 1999 K.G. she took a leave of absence from NASA and moved to Modesto to help her daughter with a child who had health challenges.  While in Modesto, K.G. became a substitute science and language teacher mainly, at Prescott Senior Elementary School.  In 2003 parents and students petitioned the school committee to hire her full time.  They wanted to hire her but, despite her outstanding career in science, she needed a teaching credential.  She enrolled at Chapman University and in 2004, at the age of 63, earned a Multiple Subjects Teaching Credential.

At Chapman she became fascinated with the Laotian language and the needs of immigrant children.  Once she had her credential, she was hired by Tenaya Middle School in Fresno, CA, as a science teacher and specialized in working with Laotian student groups.

In 2006 she made her way back to Modesto and was hired as a science teacher at Prescott Middle School, where she had begun her teaching several years before.  Now in 2016, at the age of 75 she is in her tenth year at Prescott teaching 8th grade science.  Here enthusiasm for teaching and learning has not waned; in fact, it continues to grow.  She is the coach of their award winning Academic Pentathalon team.  Her classroom is a sight to behold with robots of all kinds sitting on top of the supply cabinets.  Being with her just a short time and experiencing her zest for life makes you understand how she managed to navigate such and interesting, rich and successful life.