Molokai robotics team headed to world, international competitions

A robotics team from Molokai Middle School won the Hawaii VEX IQ tournament earlier this year and is headed to the world championships in Anaheim, Calif.

This is the first year the middle school has fostered a robotics program, and teachers have described the group as a “Cinderella team” that has had to overcome a variety of obstacles ranging from late notice of registration, lack of travel funds and a last-minute qualifying entry.

“We never expected to make it to state, and now we’re headed to world and international (competitions),” said Kumu Kaeo Kawaa, Molokai Middle School head coach and STEM teacher. (STEM refers to science, technology, engineering and math.)

Now, the team needs to raise at least $16,000 to pay for airfare and hotel accommodations for six students and two teacher coaches. By qualifying for one of seven Hawaii slots during the state tournament in March, the group will be attending the world championship competition in California from April 23 to 26 and also the International Summer Games on Oahu in July.

Molokai Middle School was the only school from Maui County to compete in the state qualifying tournament this year, and the only non-Oahu team to qualify for the world championships.

It is also the only competing team on which all students are Native Hawaiian.

“Molokai Middle has had to deal with the added travel costs that no other . . . schools were burdened with, including canceling of flights, discontinuing of flights, unavailability of rental cars, and extra hotel and meal costs,” Kawaa said.

Despite the challenges, the group of 8th-graders – three boys and three girls – has proved that adversity can breed great achievement, school officials said.

“These are country kids. They’re used to problem solving,” Molokai Middle School Principal Gary Davidson said. “If they need something, they can’t just go to Wal-Mart or 7-Eleven. They have to solve their way through those problems. Robotics is that expression of what they already do in their normal lives.”

The Hoolehua school has about 200 students enrolled in 7th and 8th grades and is the only middle school on the small, rural island of Molokai. It was recognized by the state Board of Education as “the most improved public school in Hawaii” in 2012, just eight years after separating from Molokai High to create an independent middle school. It is also the only school in the state to have a dedicated class and teacher for the STEM program.

“Molokai has every negative statistic you can think of. We lead in the highest poverty rate, drug use, domestic abuse, diabetes, welfare, so the dreams that our students have on Molokai (were) also very small,” Davidson said. “Molokai Middle School has been broadening that picture of what is possible for our students, and we did that through STEM. . . . When you take the barriers down, you see these kids have good skills, innovation, problem solving, networking.

“They went from zero to qualifying for world championships, that’s their natural innate abilities coming through,” he said.

It came with hard work, teachers said. The students spent numerous hours after school to modify their robots, conduct trials and tests and prepare for competitions.

“Molokai kids are diamonds in the rough who shine but rarely get the opportunity or chance to let their light be known to the world due to lack of resources and exposure,” Molokai Middle School teacher and parent Nichol Helm Kahale said. “They competed (and won) against big city schools and private institutions . . . and they did this all in their first year of being a part of robotics.”

Lenny Klompus, who heads the nonprofit Friends of Hawaii Robotics, which supports programs at schools across the state, said that robotics is as much about teamwork as it is about technical prowess.

“It’s not just building a robot, and it’s not just about science and technology. It’s about these young people coming together as a team to solve real-world problems,” said Klompus, who has helped organize robotics competitions in Hawaii since 2008.

Klompus, an adviser for former Gov. Linda Lingle, said that Molokai Middle School qualified for a grant last year to purchase the robotics kit.

“Anytime Molokai comes up, we stop and read the whole application because we know they need the money,” he said, adding that the school did “a great job” at the state competition.

To donate to the Molokai Middle School robotics team, go to or send donations to Molokai Middle School, 2175 Lihipali Ave., Hoolehua 96729 (indicate on check “Social Media-Gofundme”).

@ Eileen Chao can be reached at