Isle of the Automatons

Moloka‘i is the last place you’d expect to find globally competitive robotics teams. So why are they winning?
Story by Lavonne Leong. Photos by PF Bentley.

A corrugated metal roof, a dusty cement floor, big garage doors and a couple of stand-alone fans blowing hot air around: It looks more like the auto shop it used to be than the robotics room it is.

“I love this room but I hate this room,” laughs Moloka‘i High School junior Makanilealea Davis. When her father, now a mechanic, attended Moloka‘i High, this was where they parked cars for students to work on. These days it does double duty as both robotics room and storage for a massive wood-shop saw and the large wooden stages on which Davis and her classmates will one day graduate. Davis points to the dusty footprints of red Moloka‘i soil on the concrete. Problematic: Dirt tracked onto a robotics field can accelerate wear and tear at best, and at worst gum up the works. Although there are three high school robotics teams going to the state competition this year from Moloka‘i, there’s room for only one twelve-by-twelve-foot VEX robotics field—although today, coach Edwin Mendija’s elementary school teams have also set up a much smaller VEX IQ (the simplified VEX tournament for younger kids) field so they can practice every day, straight through Christmas break.

Moloka‘i High School students Ilima Ka‘awa-Richardson (left) and Evelyn Haase work on their team’s robot.

Between the two fields, the saw and the graduation stages, there’s hardly room to walk. And yet this room and rooms like it across the island have served their purpose well. In any given year, around eighteen thousand VEX robotics teams from more than forty countries design, build and program a robot for the year’s “game,” a performance challenge that changes every year. The goal: to do well enough in the season’s many local and regional competitions to win a place at the annual VEX Robotics World Championship—“Worlds”—which will be held this year in Louisville, Kentucky.

Since they began competing in the VEX (middle and high school) and VEX IQ (elementary and middle school) platforms in 2014, Moloka‘i’s middle school teams have traveled to Worlds three times, coached by husband-wife team Kaeo and Sarah Kawa‘a, whom everyone calls “Kumu and Kumu” (teacher and teacher). An elementary school team, coached by 24-year-old Edwin Mendija, went to Worlds for the first time in 2017—and took second place globally.

Sleepy, rural Moloka‘i, half the size of O‘ahu and with one percent of its population, is known for its uncrowded beaches, its homestead farms and its kani ka pila music sessions. It’s not the first or even fiftieth place you’d imagine VEX robotics teams would thrive.

For one thing, success in robotics is often a matter of money. “We can’t buy all the hydraulics and some of the other things the other teams have,” says Erik Svetin, a Moloka‘i VEX robotics alum who’s now majoring in engineering at Syracuse University in New York. But there’s advantage in that, too: Moloka‘i’s teams know how to squeeze the most out of their materials. “Sometimes we see other teams using hydraulics when some of those pieces aren’t even needed,” Svetin says. “We’re at a disadvantage, but we’re still making the most of our opportunities.” That can mean pillaging last year’s robot for parts, as Davis’ team did this year.

A former auto shop houses coach Edwin Mendija’s robotics teams. During holiday breaks, all ages and grade levels work together in a single space.

Faced with intense and well-funded competition (“Hawai‘i is one of the hardest regions to qualify from,” says Mendija), the island’s high school teams have not yet made it to Worlds. That’s the goal for this year, and it won’t be easy.

This year’s VEX “game” is all about stacking cones and getting them into an end zone. In the statewide tournament’s early rounds, all forty-eight teams will be paired randomly with one collaborator and matched against two randomly paired opponents. To win, teams must strategize to outmaneuver their opponents against the clock. Every robot, like every teammate, is better at some things than others. A robot can be precise but slow, or it can zip but drop things or knock them over if the driver isn’t careful. Some robots do a single job exceptionally well, operating like farm equipment; others are flexible generalists. And teams must adapt to the unexpected. Robots break, seize up or get entangled in each other. Drivers or programmers choke. Sometimes collaborators don’t show up, and you have to figure out how to win solo against two teams.

Kelly Ka‘awa-Richardson, whose sons Ilima and Kamalu compete on the high school team, watches off-island tournaments on livestreaming. “So much is going on,” she says. “We do heart flips because, wow, they are under pressure.” Even if Ka‘awa-Richardson isn’t always there for moral support, she’s reassured knowing that “Coach” Mendija is. His youth—he graduated from Moloka‘i High School himself just six years ago—and his laid-back demeanor make him seem more like a colleague than a coach, but he’s always right there when he’s needed. Mendija volunteers during his daytime breaks to coach the elementary school (“It’s mostly a recess team,” he says), and after school he drives up to the high school and stays in the school’s old auto body shop until dinner time, making suggestions and encouraging students to take the lead.

During the school year, Mendija’s younger students skip recess to practice with their robots at Kualapu‘u Elementary School. Moloka‘i’s many elementary school teams help to seed the intermediate and high school teams.

“He allows them to think for them-selves,” says Ka‘awa-Richardson. “And he lets them calibrate. Say they go to a tournament and didn’t do well. They’re back in [the robotics room] for a week afterward, pushing it out. Then they go back to another tournament, and they dominate.” Competitive robotics builds grit, that ineffable quality so many colleges are seeking, says Kim Svetin, who manages the island’s drugstore and ice cream shop: “Grit is one thing that robotics taught both of my boys. When you’re making a robot, you’re not going to be successful every time, so you want to improve. You can get an adrenaline rush from continuous improvement.”

It turns out that many of the things for which Moloka‘i is known—its smallness, its ruralness, its focus on community—are what’s propelled this under-resourced team to the forefront of Hawai‘i student robotics.

Robotics is where STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines intersect with hands-on experience. Evelyn Haase, another Moloka‘i High School team captain, explains that most students gravitate to one of several roles: designer/builders who create the robot, programmers who code it, drivers who control it. That’s where non-urban experience comes into its own, says Dan Mantz, CEO of the Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation, which created the VEX platforms. Great drivers might be video gamers, but they might also be kids who have driven things IRL—in real life. Farm kids, says Mantz, “can do really well because they’re used to dealing with farm equipment.” The same goes for those who design and build the robots; growing up around people who can take things apart and put them back together can be a huge advantage. And the social skills that develop when screens aren’t the primary mode of communication come in handy when you want to build successful real-life alliances.

For this year’s state competition, students had to design, build, program and operate their robots to collect and move colored rings with precision.

The influence of Moloka‘i’s ‘ohana-based culture also sets its teams apart. Older students mentor younger ones, which means that newbies have not one coach, but many. On the high school teams, juniors Haase and Davis describe them-selves as “the moms of the group.” Pointing to Kamalu Ka‘awa-Richardson, a freshman who loves to drive, Haase says, “These guys are still learning, so we can make them well-rounded, not like us.” She counters the tendency to overspecialize by encouraging others to step outside their comfort zones: “I’ll say, ‘I’m building, come help. Get over here.’”

The same goes for extending robotics back to the elementary grades, says Davis: “We don’t just want to win. We want to give back to the community and teach the newer kids that this is something they can do.” Being able to start in earlier grades means more time to grow, she says. “If you start earlier, you can learn from your mistakes. If you mess up and it’s your last year, you can’t fix it.”

Kumu Kawa‘a agrees that an island-wide, K-12 robotics network rooted in Hawaiian culture is a strength. “Because we’re strong culturally, it’s our kuleana, our responsibility, to give back,” says Kawa‘a. “Our alumni recruit and mentor. We’re thinking whole-island. It’s not ‘I win.’ It’s not even ‘We win.’ It’s ‘Moloka‘i wins.’”

The 2018 Hawaiian Electric Hawai‘i State VEX and VEX IQ Robotics Championship unfolds over two days in the Kamehameha Schools gymnasium, high on a hillside overlooking Pearl Harbor. The morning of day one is off to an unsettling start for the high school teams: An incoming ICBM alert, which sets smartphones buzzing and will later make worldwide headlines as a false alarm, has everyone huddling together in the gym until the all-clear comes thirty-eight minutes later.

“My goal is exposure for these students,” says Mendija. “The great thing with robotics is it encompasses everything: math, computer science, engineering. Plus communication skills, teamwork, organization and leadership.”

The tournament begins late but now is in full swing. The randomly assigned initial matches are over, and the quarterfinals, in which the top eight teams can invite two collaborators each to join them, are about to begin.

Haase’s team has run into spectacularly bad luck: Two of their collaborator teams didn’t show up for the early matches, leaving them too low in the rankings. Davis’ team fights their way to fourth seed, securing a place in the quarterfinals and the option to choose their collaborators. Davis invites Kamehameha Schools and Pearl City, a top-ranked team who beat them last year. Pearl City deliberates for several minutes before agreeing. Everyone’s taking longer than usual. “Usually these things go real quick,” muses Haase from the bleachers. “That thing this morning threw us off.”

But Moloka‘i’s luck runs out. In the first afternoon match, Pearl City’s audaciously high stack of cones collapses just before the driver can tip them into the zone, to audible groans across the gym. The second match is even worse: During the initial “autonomous” round, where robots operate driverless, both robots get tangled up or freeze. When it comes time for the drivers to take control, they can’t. There will be no Worlds for Moloka‘i High this year, and the disappointment is palpable.

Mendija and Haase, coach and student, sit next to each other in the stands. Mendija is philosophical: “At least we lost to the best, eh?”

Haase nods in agreement. “We gave ’em a good fight.”

“Someone out there is always better than you,” Mendija had said before the tournament. “You just have to be humble enough to learn from them and accept your loss. And when you win it’s not about the winning. The winning just shows how much you’ve actually learned. You don’t win or lose: You win or learn.”

Ninety-six teams from throughout the Islands turned out for the 2018 Hawai‘i State VEX Robotics Championship. Here, families watch as elementary school students operate their robots.

The next day, the VEX IQ tournament for elementary and middle school is more lighthearted. Whole families pack Kamehameha’s gym, bringing snacks, drinks and cheer. Among the crowd are the Svetins, who have turned out en masse to support Owen Svetin, an eighth-grader at Moloka‘i Middle School. Mendija is here again, coaching his elementary teams from Kualapu‘u School. Several games run simultaneously all day, with scores tallied on screens in the middle of the gym.

Owen’s already had a setback this morning, says Kim Svetin, his mother. He disagreed with the way a match was called but forgot that contestants aren’t allowed to make a case for more points after they exit the area. He’d left to confer with Kumu Kaeo but couldn’t return to argue his case with the judges. This is his last year with VEX IQ, so it’s a mistake that won’t benefit him next year—but, says Kim, “he can tell his teammates, ‘This is the mistake I made,’” so they don’t repeat it.

But when the scores for the final matches pop up, Owen’s team, the Menehune Farmers, have 247 points. It’s the highest score that Mantz, REC’s CEO, who has come to watch the tournament, has seen all season in his travels across the United States. Then the elementary scores scroll past, and Mendija, normally so reserved, leaps up, pumps both fists in the air and shouts for joy. Moloka‘i’s elementary and middle school teams have swept the top spots at the state VEX IQ robotics tournament, a first. Invitations to Worlds, in Kentucky, are in the bag. Many of these students have never been out of the state before. Mendija heads off to celebrate with Kumu and Kumu. Moloka‘i wins.

For the parents and teachers, racking up the wins is just a means to an end. On an island that acquired high school science labs only last year, robotics can connect the dots from real-world learning to STEM, and from STEM to the soft skills they’ll need IRL. “STEM is the buzzword,” says Mantz, “but at the end of the season, it’s the life skills.” Art Kimura, the man who brought VEX to Hawai‘i a decade ago, agrees: “No doubt [robotics] leads a lot of kids into STEM careers,” says Kimura, “but let’s talk about ‘soft skills.’ It’s teamwork, communication, problem solving. To me that’s more important.”

Coach Mendija jumps for joy as victory is declared for his Kualapu‘u Elementary School teams.

For Mendija it’s personal. When I first spoke with him, he told me that he hasn’t yet graduated from college; there’s no money, and because robotics started up in his senior year, he had no shot at a STEM scholarship. These days, VEX robotics takes up all his spare time. “I never got a chance to leave,” he said. “If I could go back to school, I would. But right now I’m the person responsible to see this through —to make sure kids won’t miss out on opportunities like I did. I expect these kids to pass me once they leave high school. As a coach and teacher, that’s what you want.”

In the meantime Davis, who makes time for VEX robotics between helping out on her family’s seasonal watermelon farm and caring for younger siblings, is back in the old auto shop she hates and loves. As a junior, she has another year to make it to Worlds. “Robotics is my life,” she says. “I’ve spent the majority of my high school years in this room. I spend my study halls and my free periods in this room. If people want to find me, I’m here.” HH