January 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nate Hutchison, 16, dumps his Rubik’s cube collection onto the dining room table. The stash boasts an entire spectrum of not just colors, but shapes and varieties, too: puzzles composed of interlocking triangles, diamonds, crosses, but also dimensions one wouldn’t expect from a “cube,” like snaking ropes, prisms, and even non-Euclidean brain-benders.

Nate got interested in solving and collecting puzzle cubes in elementary school, and he started getting serious about the hobby in middle school. His mother, Heather, was an employee at Fat Brain Toys (an Omaha-based maker of educational toys and games), and Nate was frequently tapped to test their new products.

“I seek out the most interesting ones,” he says, “like the ones that aren’t 3-by-3 cubes,” or cubes that require more steps to solve. It’s a small glimpse into a hobbyist world dominated by human calculators, and though Nate doesn’t participate in Rubik’s cube-solving competitions (yes, such contests do exist), his ability to solve the puzzles is still very impressive, taking a few minutes on average.

His foray into puzzle cubes opened the way for greater ambitions: the world of robotics. Heather proudly shows off a YouTube video of a mechanical arm, which Nate built to solve a cube puzzle. “The arm works by sensing the color in front of it, and calculates what move to make next,” Nate explains as it plays.

The exercise launched Nate into pursuing robotics “full time.” He joined the national Zero Robotics tournament with a team of classmates at Millard West. The competition hosts students from around the world, challenging them to program small robots on the International Space Station.

His engineering club has also boasted some other novel accomplishments, such as building a cannon to shoot t-shirts.

“The school has two engineering pathways, and I’m seeking a ‘distinguished’ diploma with emphases in mechanical and digital engineering,” says Nate, who hopes to enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after graduation.

For sure, Nate’s family has been incredibly supportive of his ambitions and interests. His mother is now a special education para in their school district, and his father, Wendell, has a career in software development.

“As parents, we’ve tried to foster his interests as much as we can,” they say, and the echoes of science and technology can be felt through every corner of the Hutchison household, brimming with robotic figurines and images, as well as scientific kits, sets, and games. “The biggest challenge as parents,” Wendell says, “is to discover the possibilities, and then expose them.”

Nate’s interests are far from single-minded, though; his love of engineering is complemented by a love of music. He plays bass clarinet and lettered in band and orchestra. “I like metal and electronic music,” he quips (as Wendell makes a rock ’n’ roll devil’s horns gesture in solidarity).

It’s clear Nate has an exciting future in front of him; yet in the here and now, he’s a relatable teenager. His latest goal? “Learning to play guitar.”

Visit fatbraintoys.com and zerorobotics.mit.edu for more information about Nate’s Rubik’s cube supplier and the national robotics competition.

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.