Kris Ponmalai was an electrical engineer for 17 years and then started his own engineering business. From the moment he was introduced to FIRST, he understood the value of students getting a chance to learn science, engineering and entrepreneurial skills that will help them all their lives. He has been a mentor with Code Orange for five years and routinely serves as an inspector, a judge and a referee at tournaments, regionals, offseasons, and Champs. Humble and quiet, he is also encouraging and inspirational with every student.
Mr. Ponmalai always gets excited when we ask him a question or for help with a problem. He asks leading questions, encourages us to look at all the options, and helps us find solutions. Consistently reminding us to follow our own 10-step-design process, he guides us from the first step of drawing napkin sketches to the final step of creating the finished product. He explains complex engineering concepts, brings them to a level we can understand and makes them interesting, relevant, and fun. He shows us how valuable our own ideas are and helps us bring our ideas to reality, encouraging us to ask additional questions.
Mr. Ponmalai is a superb teacher of problem-solving skills. One student said that in 2015, Code Orange didn’t have enough machinists. Although the student had not done machining before, he had to learn quickly. Mr. Ponmalai carefully explained each step and showed him how to make each part. When the student thought he had it figured out, he made a part for the back ramp on
the robot, but incorrectly. Frustrated, the student went to Mr. Ponmalai, who calmly taught him again how to use the lathe and made sure he knew how to use every single tool. The student learned that making mistakes and learning from them is a valuable part of the problem-solving process. After that, it was easy for that student to make parts.
Often new students have no knowledge of engineering or machining and sit on the sidelines feeling they do not know enough to contribute. Mr. Ponmalai is phenomenal at spotting these students and teaching them everything they need to know increasing their confidence. One student was surprised when Mr. Ponmalai asked him to do all the welding for the Superpit. The student thought he was too inexperienced, but Mr. Ponmalai thought that it would be a good chance to learn how to weld. The student’s welding skills grew exponentially and he said it will benefit him for the rest of his robotics career. Another student said that as a new member, she didn’t know how to contribute to the team. Mr. Ponmalai welcomed her and instantly understood her hesitation. He taught her all the machining fundamentals and then brought her together with other students to work as a team.
Mr. Ponmalai’s gentle humility makes him an unsung hero to many outside Code Orange, but in our workshop, we recognize that his wisdom, knowledge and accessibility have inspired students, mentors, and parents alike.