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Kaunakakai robotics finishes fourth at world competition

Four teams from Maui County show they have what it takes in Louisville

Kaunakakai Elementary students Kalauihi Kaai (second from left) and Kailen Poepoe-Johnson practice for an upcoming robotics match alongside their Chinese alliance teammates during the 2019 VEX Robotics IQ Worlds Championship in Louisville, Ky., last month. Kaai, Poepoe-Johnson and teammate Maesilyn Yuen tied for fourth in their division. Kimberly Kaai photo

After tying for fourth in their division at the 2019 VEX Robotics IQ Worlds Championship, Kailen Poepoe-Johnson and Kalauihi Kaai celebrated with a lap around the Kentucky Exposition Center, draped in the Hawaiian flag.

The Kaunakakai Elementary School team’s success in its first trip to the world championships reinforced what many teams before them have shown — Hawaii has world-class robotics talent.

“A tiny little island in the middle of the Pacific, and we’re able to put kids on the worldwide map,” Kaunakakai coach Joe Howe said. “I’m so psyched about that.”

Joining Kaunakakai on the world stage in Louisville from April 28 to 30 were fellow Maui County programs from Kualapuu School, which finished 24th in its division; Mendija Robotics Academy, whose middle school students placed 53rd in their division; and Lokelani Intermediate, which came in 72nd in its division.

“We didn’t do as well as we wanted, but I feel like the lessons we learned probably was even better,” said Edwin Mendija, who coached both his robotics academy and Kualapuu.

The students and coaches of the three robotics teams representing Molokai — Kaunakakai Elementary, Kualapuu School and Mendija Robotics Academy — hang out during the world championships in Louisville, Ky., last month. Photo courtesy Edwin Mendija

The teams competed with programs from all over the world in a game called “next level,” in which the robots had to pick up game pieces shaped like wheel hubs and stack them in certain scoring zones. At the end of each game, the robots had to lift themselves onto a long pole in the center of the field, which Mendija said made for some exciting finishes as teams rushed to the posts in the final seconds.

During the first part of the competition, students first had to drive the robots themselves and score as many points as they could, they then had to program their robots to stack the hubs on their own. The teams were later paired with schools from all over the world in 10 different matchups.

“The kids are scrambling around this huge, two-football-field-long arena . . . trying to find their alliance team, come to some kind of agreement, who’s going to do what chores on the field,” Howe said. “The lessons they learned was so much more than driving a robot. They learned communication skills, interpersonal skills, how to speak with people and deal with a lot of personalities.”

Kaunakakai’s international alliances included Colombia, Mexico and China, which Howe said was eye-opening for the students. He recalled with a laugh how the Chinese elementary students were “barking orders at the adults,” including Kaunakakai coach Andrea Yuen, who at one point forgot to start the timer during practice.

“You never hear a local kid yelling at a teacher like that,” Howe said.

Lokelani Intermediate Coach and Vice Principal Peter Hansen (far left) poses for a photo alongside the Kolohe Kids robotics team and fellow Coach Iokepa Meno (far right) during the robotics world championships in Louisville, Ky. Photo courtesy Iokepa Meno

But while the competition was intense and Kaunakakai fared well, Howe said he was mainly interested in what teammates Kaai, Poepoe-Johnson and Maesilyn Yuen learned during the whole experience. The students practiced every day after school, balancing homework, sports and robotics. They polished their public speaking skills to present to the judges. They learned the basics of engineering and tinkered with the robots to the point where they could do their own repairs during competition.

“As a coach, we don’t push very hard for success — we push for effort,” Howe said. “We want you to give your effort, give your best, give your heart, and whatever comes out, comes out.”

Mendija and Lokelani coach Iokepa Meno echoed the sentiment. Mendija, fresh off a trip to the FIRST Championship with Molokai High School’s robotics team, said he instills in his students the importance of fundamentals and the desire to always improve. Mendija took three students from his academy and two from Kualapuu, which was making its first appearance at worlds.

“I want to see one of these kids change the world one day,” he said. “This is not the end all. This is just a piece of the puzzle for these students. They’ll make so much more of themselves in the future. I really truly believe that this is a great avenue for the kids, but this is not it. They’re going to go on later to do great things.”

Lokelani, meanwhile, took 11 students in its second trip to worlds. The Kolohe Kids are coming off a strong year, winning the 2019 Hawaiian Electric Hawaii State Middle School VEX IQ Championship along with Mililani Middle School in February, and earning a sixth-place alliance finish out of 100 middle school teams at the national competition in Iowa in April.

Meno said that Lokelani and Maui County in general used to be known as participants, “and now we’re competitors” in the robotics realm.

“I’m just really humbled that we got to actually do this,” Meno said. “Of course this didn’t exist when we were younger, and this is something I really see for our students. . . . This is the tip of the spear for careers, and being so remote and isolated, these careers are what’s going to keep us here (in Hawaii), and we can work anywhere.”

Lokelani took creative measures to save money, flying into Kansas City, driving nearly seven hours to Ferdinand, Ind., and making the one-hour commute every day from there to Louisville. Meno said they dedicated the trip to former Lokelani tech coordinator Zayna Stoycoff, who died Easter morning after a battle with cancer.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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