Like the career path he wants to enter, James Thompson is wired for endless possibilities.
“It’s constantly changing ... constantly evolving,” the senior at Harrisburg Academy said of the related fields of electrical engineering, computer programming and robotics.
“It’s a very dynamic world,” he added. “I want to be a part of the future of that technology. I want to have an influence on how that technology goes.”
Born in Harrisburg, 17-year-old Thompson got his start in computers in the fifth or sixth grade by way of his father who owns an information technology business on the West Shore.
“When people ordered a new computer, he would have me build it and set it up,” said Thompson, who lives in Fairview Township, York County. “It’s not as difficult as some would assume.”
In fact, he took to the work right away and learned through his dad how to troubleshoot problems, replace hardware and install anti-virus software.
“It’s an easy learning process,” Thompson said. “There are a lot of places you can go from there.” He did not wait too long to explore the potential beyond the family business.
In the sixth grade, Thompson was on a team of two students who built a robot and competed in the Technology Student Association “Robot Tobor” event. Their entry won the state competition and placed in the top ten nationally.
The following year, he led a team of four students who won the national Phoenix Contact Nanoline Competition by designing and building a solar panel array that can track the sun from any location on Earth. The intent is for the array to be mounted on an electric vehicle.
The array has a large solar panel in the middle and four smaller panels – one for each corner. The smaller panels take readings on the amount of solar energy coming from each angle which is then used to rotate and tilt the main collector panel.
“We won a trip to Hannover, Germany to show it off at a tech fair,” Thompson said. His team had a booth alongside major technology companies.
Thompson enrolled at Harrisburg Academy as a ninth-grader because of the opportunities the school offered him to explore robotics and computers, said Keo Oura Kounlavong-Sabath, director of college counseling.
In his first three years, Thompson worked as an intern in the school’s IT department installing WiFi access points and a new phone system. He also ran Ethernet cable into classrooms and prepared computers for the next academic year.
As a junior, Thompson led a team of students that designed a remote controlled rover for the Nanoline competition. The purpose of the rover is to explore emergency situations too hazardous for first-responders to enter.
“James set out to build a robot that would not only challenge him intellectually but would also prevent the loss of more innocent lives,” she said. “He is a natural leader whose style incorporates active listening and collaboration. His team thrived under his leadership during a demonstration of the rover at an all-school meeting.
“James is a delightful combination of left brain and right brain,” she added. “Not only do both sides work harmoniously together to bring his ideas to life, but they also propel him toward experiences that feed his insatiable appetite for knowledge.”
The left brain side of Thompson is demonstrated by the logic and analysis he uses to fit together solutions to problems much like the pieces of the puzzle. The right brain side of Thompson comes out in his musical creativity and pursuit of adventure, according to Kounlavong-Sabath.
Thompson returned to Germany to attend a summer school program on mechanical engineering at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany. While in Europe, he toured the Mercedes Benz factory and watched how robots assembled cars.
He first became interested in music in the third-grade when his uncle, a professional trombonist, convinced him to learn the instrument. “I haven’t stopped,” Thompson said. “I’ve been playing it for nine years.”
Thompson started singing in the middle school choir and has been a lead in the fall musical at the academy. Just as he enjoys the science and math that goes into computer circuitry, Thompson has an interest in composing music. One of the pieces he is working on is baroque concerto written in the style of Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. He also sings with the Cumberland Singers Community Choir in Mechanicsburg and was in a musical performed by the Harrisburg Christian Performing Arts Center.
A Tiger Cub in the first-grade, Thompson earned his way up the ranks and became an Eagle Scout in late June with a project that benefitted the Harrisburg Academy.
He led a team of scouts who turned an overgrown road into a nature path on school property that ran along a nearby creek. This team cut up one of the trees that had fallen over and used its rounds as seating for an outdoor classroom for writing music and for environmental science classes.
Thompson said there are two paths he is looking to pursue depending on which college accepts him. He could go into the U.S. Naval Academy, serve as an officer and pursue a degree after the military or he could attend a major technology school like MIT or Carnegie Mellon University and pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering or a related field.