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Molokai Robotics to Compete in World Championship

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

Despite many setbacks and navigating the obstacles presented by the pandemic, a Molokai robotics team has qualified for the VEX Robotics Remote World Championship and will compete virtually against hundreds of teams worldwide. Setting the bar high and proving that distance robotics is possible, the team has once again shown that Molokai is always up for a challenge.

The four students — eighth graders Maesilyn Yuen and Kalau’ihi Kaai, and seventh graders Genesis Nakihei and Mark Ragonton — coached by Edwin Mendija, learned and constructed their robots remotely, passing the robots between their families as they were developed. After thinking they were disqualified from a shot at the Worlds, they narrowly completed construction and programming in time, earning them a chance to compete.

The Molokai High School-based team started off the 2020-2021 school year with a virtual robotics coding competition called CoderZ League, which ran from October through January. The team made it though two qualifying rounds to place in the regional semifinals.

But though they were still able to compete, the students had only been able to meet through video conferencing, and the lack of any hands-on robotics took its toll on the program, said Mendija.

“I lost a vast majority of my high school age students — I believe the amount of computer-based work they had in class made doing even more after school unbearable for them,” he said.

In February, through a grant from Friends of Hawaii Robotics, Mendija said the program was able to purchase multiple VEX Robotics kits. Students took the kits home to construct remotely but learning to use tools and construct a mechanical structure through screen-only instruction was challenging. Building the robots took longer than usual because students still had to share the workload, only during the pandemic, that meant the robots had to travel between households.

With all the delays, the team missed several events and so were ineligible to compete at the state level. But their journey wasn’t over.

On April 6, Mendija got a call saying due to COVID policy changes, the team had a second chance to compete. But the robots still weren’t finished, and the students hadn’t been able to program or operate them yet. In addition, they didn’t have a location to set up. With just four days to pull it all off, the robots were completed just one day before the championship event and the team was able to find a location to set up a competition field.

The four students were split into two competing teams for the live remote “skills” State Championship on April 11. Mendija said Team 1037X obtained a score of 19 points in the programming portion, and 65 points in the driving portion for a total of 84 points. Team 1037Z scored 19 points in programming, and 59 points in driving, totaling 78 points. The Molokai teams placed third and fourth in their division, with team 1037X qualifying for Worlds.

“I’m very excited that we were able to pull this off, especially with a whole team of rookies,” said Mendija. “We were not even supposed to be a part of the event and the kids literally only practiced and programmed the night before. We continue to succeed as underdogs, which I believe they thrive on. I’m proud of these kids for sticking out this year and paving a new path for distance learning with robotics!”

The 2021 VEX Robotics World Championship will be held May 17-19, with Molokai Robotics competing remotely over video conferencing alongside hundreds of other teams around the world.

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