Favorite robots serve to entertain — and teach — children

It's one thing when a robot is book smart. It's another when it wins the hearts of children.

"Star Wars" robot builder Mike Senna has seen the look many times — the astonished, wide eyes, the big grins and squeals of joy. Children love movie robots.

For more than 10 years, Senna has made lifelike replicas, if you will, of R2-D2, BB-8 and WALL-E. The Yorba Linda resident also helps lead the international R2 Builders Club, and since 2005 he's represented Lucasfilm in TV shows, commercials and special events such the Rose Parade, Disney's D23 Expo and the 2016 Oscars.

But most of the time his droids help inspire children at area libraries, including a recent show at the Laguna Beach Library. For more information, including upcoming shows, visit sennasR2D2.blogspot.com.

"The kids react really well," he said. "It's taken awhile to get that balance between keeping it entertaining for the kids and presenting some values for them to see how things are done, how things are processed and where it can lead you."

The most common age range for the library tours is about 5 to 10 years old. Sometimes, depending on the age, there are challenges in how to present the robot's details. In other words, it's the Santa Claus dilemma.

"That's a divide that I sometimes struggle with," Senna said. "Usually if I go to an event and it's a public event, I'm hiding the remote.

"I have to tell them this is not the one in the movies. So it's kind of like Santa Claus, and you go visit him in the malls and things. And if you're a little kid, there are so many Santa Clauses, and you're like, 'Dad, how come there are so many Santa Clauses?' "

This Santa's helper explanation comes in handy, but it doesn't always work.

During the middle of Senna's Laguna library talk, one very young girl, perhaps 3 or 4, patiently raised her hand. Senna called on her.

"Um … um, when is WALL-E coming?" she asked.

Senna hesitated and then said apologetically, "WALL-E isn't coming." He only had R2 and BB-8 at the event.

The girl was immediately crestfallen. Her bottom lip started to quiver and tears welled up. Her mom leaned down and offered her an ice cream after the show.

"That is so sad," Senna said to the audience. There were several supportive "awws."

"You'll find that the younger the kids get, the less they'll recognize R2 and BB-8," he said afterward. "I'm so dumb because I didn't get that at first, and I have kids. The younger you go, the more affection you'll get toward the WALL-E character versus the R2."

Senna tries to tailor his lecture to the level of the audience. A science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) class will be different from a public promotional event. Fundamentally, what he does is meant to be educational yet also somewhat magical. A computer programmer by training, he knows he can't get too technical.

"You always see one or two kids that are completely fascinated. You can see it on their face," he said. "It's all about the people in the end."

He learned when he started doing the shows that he needed to pace himself. It's a lot of work to prepare, transport and manage the ongoing maintenance and logistics of a show. Plus, when he began there were very few R2s, and the demand was high, so he faced some burnout.

"It takes a toll," he said. "If I didn't go to this event or that event, then I knew that one kid who could have that spark within him ignited wouldn't experience it. So I kind of felt responsible and kept doing these events."

But Senna learned to balance his workload and has enjoyed bringing joy and inspiration to thousands of children.

His R2-D2 made more than 100 appearances in its first four years, including mostly charity events, such as City of Hope, Make-a-Wish, and Downs syndrome and autism fundraisers.

While his robots stay mostly in Southern California, they have made appearances in Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Orlando and Montana. Senna has worked the stage several times with the Pacific Symphony orchestra and at numerous Legoland "Star Wars" weekends.

R2-D2 has also met numerous celebrities and been filmed for VH1, MTV, "Access Hollywood," "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," and Verizon and Toyota TV commercials. Similarly, the WALL-E and BB-8 have been in numerous promotions and events.

In 2015, Senna built a BB-8 replica based on promotion for "Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens." It was part of a TV commercial that was to air before the premiere.

Senna always hopes the kids get a kick out of his shows but also are encouraged to try difficult things.

"You really identify with these kids," he said. "They have a vision of doing these things in robots, but they need to know there is a path they have to follow. They have to do the experimentation. They have to fail and move forward. I see too many kids who just get so frustrated they just walk away.

"I say stick with it. You don't have to do it right the first time."

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DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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