Molokai Robotics: A Legacy of Learning
By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor
Preparing for their regional competition on Oahu, Molokai High School robotics students spent their spring break practicing the delicate art of maneuvering blocks onto three levels using a robot they designed, built and programmed over the past several months. In the competition, they form alliances with teams from around the world, with a dozen other students and their robots all competing to perform the same tasks on a basketball-court-sized competition field. It’s a high-tech, high-pressure activity that costs thousands of dollars just to enter.
But in their tiny workshop set up on Molokai High cafeteria’s stage area, students use the tools they have.
“This set up right here, there’s three levels to a scoring post: levels 3, 2 and 1,” said assistant coach Kodie Place. “We use a desk, a Craftsmen vacuum box and a pizza box. But you know what? It’s works…. That’s the one good thing about Molokai – we work with what we have, and we’re creative.”
Since 2009, when teachers at Kaunakakai School started the island’s first competition robotics team, Molokai students have been excelling at the game. That first year, the Kaunakakai team qualified for States and took first place in the “creative presentation” category. Ever since, elementary, middle and high school robotics teams have won state, national and international awards, holding their own and making Molokai proud while competing against some of the world’s best robotics programs.
“In about a five year span, [the Molokai High team] has won about 30 trophies and we’ve competed at all different levels, world championships and international competitions,” said Edwin Mendija, who was himself a member when MHS’s first robotics team launched in 2010. He began leading the program in 2012 and has coached all levels of robotics since then. “The kids do really well, they’re really driven and focused on what they do, they love competing but also just love the experiences they get.”
Starting in elementary school with a program called VEX IQ robotics, students used predrilled plastic pieces to assemble robots, kind of like Legos, to learn the fundamentals of design and programming, said Mendija. In middle school, students move up to VEX robots using metal pieces, more power and increased complexity. By high school, students design, build and program from scratch, creating robots than can weigh more than 100 pounds using machined metal, electronic components and CNC plasma cutting software.
In 2019, Molokai High began competing in the FIRST league, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” It’s a higher-cost competition, Mendija explained, but the rewards and learning opportunities are also greater.
“It’s considered the Olympics of robotics for high schoolers,” he said.
The entry fee to compete in the season alone costs $5,000. Building the robot itself costs between $2,000 and $3,000 but can be unlimited depending on a team’s resources. Travel and lodging expenses for Molokai to attend the regional competition easily totals another $4,000 to $6,000. And that doesn’t include the expense of shipping the massive robot and backup tools and equipment to the competition. Attracting sponsors and raising funds are a big part of the game.
“A lot of teams can do laser cutting and precise machinery… but we’ve adopted a strategy where we reuse a lot of stuff we’ve had in the past or things laying around,” said Mendija. “We’ve kinda become this team where we’re known for being the resourceful team — we use whatever we can, because obviously we can’t get stuff on Molokai as easily, so we reuse as much as possible.”
Students see the challenges of limited resources on Molokai has a strength.
“I think the disadvantage gives us an advantage, because we become more resourceful, we make connections asking for help, we figure out how to do things not the usual way you’d do it but it would still work,” said team member Aristotle Oamil.
“Honestly, we just make do,” laughed student Shazen Bush. “We can’t do this? Ok, let’s find another way that’s simpler. Don’t overcomplicate things.”
Keeping it simple can be key when the robot needs repair in the middle of a competition.
“Last season at matches, we were frantically trying to repair what got broken,” said Kalau’ihi Ka’ai, whose team job focuses on the build. “This [year’s robot] is a lot more down to earth. We kept things extra simple but extra efficient, it’s a lot easier to identify a problem if there is one.”
To accomplish the robot build, the team’s 16 members are divided into groups, each focusing on a different task. The programming team writes the code that controls every movement the robot can make. The build team specializes in the manufacturing and assembling the mechanical and electrical components. Drivers control the robot to complete assigned tasks during the high-stakes competition. Another group focuses on social media, public relations and grant writing aspects of the team.
“It is stressful — we find so much problems and then we try and find a solution. It’s relieving when you find a solution so I think that’s cool,” said Kamau Pali.
Working through stress is a big component of competition, especially for Molokai students. Simulating makeshift competition fields for practice, adjustments often have to be made last minute once they test the robot in the real arena.
For Aiko Kanemitsu, who’s on the programming team, one of the biggest challenges is patience.
“The hardest part is being patient because there’s a lot of trial and error,” she said of the computer programming process. “Even when we do get everything to work, we have to test it out on the actual robot. So if we program it to move forward 12 feet and it doesn’t do that, we have to go back and change it.”
In each match that lasts two minutes 30 seconds, there is a 15-second “autonomous” period before the match actually begins. During that time, the robot must complete tasks automatically, using pre-programmed codes without a driver’s control. Successful autonomous periods can rake the team in extra bonus points, Kanemitsu explained.
“We have to make sure [the robot] doesn’t cross the line [during autonomous] because if it does, you get a warning, and if it happens again, you get disqualified,” she said. “We have to adjust [programming] while we’re over there [on Oahu].”
Though many of the team’s members have been participating in robotics since elementary school, programmer Akela Buchanan said this is their first timing using this programming language.
“With it you can program everything, like the motors, the brain, the controller, what the buttons do, the joystick — everything to program is on here,” he said.
Along with stress on the programming team to ensure the robot is correctly coded, and the build team to fix mechanical glitches or competition crashes, the drivers – those who control the bot during the matches – also face a lot of pressure.
Chevy Bush, one of the team’s drivers, said driving is all about judgment. Cameras on the robot give a livestream view of its path, and because the competition field is so large, with other teams driving simultaneously, drivers rely on the livestream camera view shown on a computer screen to control the robot. In his years participating in robotics since elementary school, MHS junior Chevy has come up with a focus strategy.
“My robot mainly focuses on grabbing cubes and cones and placing them on platforms or poles,” he said. “[When I’m driving], I ‘X’ out everything around me. Sometimes people literally have to shake me to tell me the time — I’ve had that happen to me before. Everything is right there… it’s super stressful.”
Over the past few months, the team has regularly worked until 10 p.m. or midnight practicing after school. Coaches volunteer their time to the cause. But at the end of the day, it’s not about the competition’s results but what the journey teaches students.
“I think the most they can take away from this is life skills because it’s not just about building a bot – you build comradery, you build connections,” said assistant coach Place. “It opens up a whole new career path for all students… a lot of these kids, they have that creative mindset… they want to build stuff.”
Last weekend, the team traveled to Oahu for the 2023 FIRST Robotics Hawaii Regional, where they faced off against other teams from Hawaii, the continental U.S. as well as China, Japan, Singapore and Indonesia. They made it to the playoffs before being eliminated.
“Being a competition, of course we like to do well, especially coming from Molokai — we’re real competitive here,” said Mendija. “But main thing for me is giving them the confidence to know they can go out and do stuff like this and compete at a World level, we’ve been there multiple times now.”
For students at Kauanakakai School, the Worlds is coming up in May. They recently won two awards at the state tournament – one of which was the coveted Excellence Award.
“Kaunakakai did something really big,” said Mendija. “No one ever got Excellence here on Molokai… it’s judged based on overall team performance where they did good with not just their robot, their operation and programming but they also had really good documentation to document their whole engineering and design process and were able to present that to the judges really well…. So they’ve done something no one else on the island has done, ever.”
Andrea Yuen, who coaches the Kaunakakai team along with Joe Howe, said following the state tournament, all three teams from the school have been invited to compete in Worlds, which will be held in Texas and include 800 teams from around the globe.
“You get matched up in alliances with teams from around the world — who may or may not speak English — and that’s part of the fun of these tournaments to meet up with teams around the world to develop a strategy to earn the most points together in that match,” Yuen said.
Kaunakakai students also just got notified they will be participating in the tournament’s opening Parade of Nations, in which they will walk with other teams from Hawaii, marking the first time Hawaii will be recognized as a nation at the event.
Students and families are currently fundraising to help cover travel costs. An upcoming STEM fundraiser with live entertainment on April 14 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Molokai Community Health Center will help contribute to their expenses.
And though Molokai teams may have fewer resources available than others, they continue to prove Molokai can compete with the best.
“Creativity is our weapon. And working with what we have — that’s what separates us from all the high level teams,” said Place. “For these kids, it’s all about creativity… that’s the beauty of having kids from Molokai on a robotics team – they make it work.”