Menehune Farmers Vex IQ Robotics team heads to world championships after record-setting state tournament
The term “Cinderella story” is a cliché that gets thrown around way too much. It is often used to describe a team that has risen from the bottom of the heap and, against all odds, accomplishes great things.
But in the case of the Molokai Middle School Vex IQ robotics team, the term fits perfectly considering what this group of six eighth-graders has overcome since the program began in October of 2013.
An unexpected first place finish for the Menehune Farmers at the state competition at McKinley High School on March 8 qualified these students for the Vex Robotics World Championship 2014 on April 23-26 in Anaheim, Calif. By forming an alliance with Island Pacific Academy, the MMS team surpassed the 100-point mark at the McKinley competition and only got better from there.
“This is a trend unequaled in the state and nation up to this point,” explained Kumu Ka’eo Kawa’a, one of the two MMS team coaches, along with his wife Kumu Kaho’iwai Kawa’a.
The team’s success at McKinley, according to Kumu Ka’eo, stems from its alliance with IPA at the state competition at Pearlridge Center on Feb. 16. It was at the state competition that the alliance with IPA, the state’s top Vex Robotics program, took Molokai to a new level.
Added Kumu Ka’eo: “Even more exciting was the fact that Molokai’s only alliance (with IPA) of both our boys’ and girls’ teams was the first to surpass the 120 point high score from Pearlridge with a top score of 126 points — it was incredible and all Molokai!”
Robotics at Molokai Middle School
Robotics teams on Molokai have had a history of success going back to 2009. But the real push came in 2011 when STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education became a top priority for many schools across Hawaii and the nation. (Search the term “robotics” on themolokainews.com and you will find a string of stories describing these successes.)
As the MMS STEM teacher, Kumu Ka’eo was looking for a robotics program in 2011 that was appropriate for middle-schoolers and could be incorporated into the day-to-day curriculum without intruding on the other successful robotics program on Molokai such as Lego or First Robotics.
In August of last year, MMS was invited to be one of 20 schools to be part of the first Vex IQ league in Hawaii. Unfortunately, MMS did not receive an email sent in August that would qualify the school for a $1,000 grant to purchase equipment and cover tournament registration fees. So the school was forced to dip into its own funds to purchase the $2,000 starter kit along with the additional inventory required.
“”We were notified late,” explained Kumu Ka’eo, “and as a result, were ineligible for start-up support, grant monies and tournament waivers. We had to start from ground zero with no outside help using only school-level funds.”
Kumu Ka’eo went on to explain how their kits were received late. “This was due to being ‘out of stock’ after all the other teams had gotten theirs, and were received a week before the first qualifying tournament in Pearl City. We have had to use school monies to pay for plane fares, hotel rooms, meals, tournament fees and rental cars. We have had flight cancellations, flight discontinuances, flight restrictions on shipping robots, insufficient rental cars and insufficient rental car space among other such challenges.
“We have had to endure what no other Oahu schools (and no other Hawaii schools eligible for the World Championship) have had to endure. Despite all of these obstacles and disadvantages, our teams were able to overcome, and have qualified themselves, through perseverance and hard work, to be where they are now. This is truly a real-life Cinderella story.”
Vex IQ competitions
Vex IQ tournaments involve two types of challenges: driver-controlled or autonomous. Students will program robots to do specific tasks in autonomous challenges. “We just couldn’t afford the hardware, software and the enormous programming code and time associated with that particular event,’ said Kumu Ka’eo in regards to the autonomous challenges.
The strength of the Menehune Farmers team has been in their skill at the Alliance category challenges where students work with another team to get the highest combined score. Another area of excellence for MMS has been in Robot/Driver Skills category where one team competes alone for the highest score. These are two of the three most highly competitive and sought-after events in Vex IQ, according to Kumu Ka’eo.
Using a remote control, students will drive their robots around a 4-by-8-foot field scooping up “buckyballs” (isohedron-shaped balls) of two different sizes and deposit them in a scoring container in a limited amount of time.
Originally, there was supposed to be two state-qualifying tournaments, at Pearl City High & Elementary School and then at Island Pacific Academy. Both the MMS girls and boys teams made it to both qualifying tournaments, but only the boys advanced to the state tournament at Pearlridge Center. The boys advanced because of their high scores in the robot driving skills. The season for the girls was over — or so they thought.
Shortly after Pearlridge, Hawaii VEX IQ officials learned that two IPA teams had qualified for three Hawaii slots in the World Championship. To fill the extra slot, Hawaii officials quickly organized the McKinley tournament. Originally the girls’ team did not qualify for the McKinley tournament, but with a shortage of teams, the girls’ team was added at the last minute so that the field could be considered official.
At McKinley, the MMS teams worked closely with IPA on the Alliance challenges. The highlight scoring event of the tournament came when the MMS boys, along with the IPA boys, scored a record-breaking 132 points total! This was the highest score of not only the McKinley tournament but of any VEX IQ tournament in the state of Hawaii and the nation.
The qualification rankings in the tournament featured the IPA girls in fourth with 425 points, MMS boys in third with 485 and the IPA boys in second with 489. The MMS girls finished first with a record-breaking 510 points. In the end, the MMS boys and IPA girls settled on 90 points while the MMS girls and IPA boys finished in first place with 109 points each — another world record, unofficially.
At the awards ceremony at the conclusion of the tournament, the MMS girls were awarded the Teamwork Challenge Award along with the IPA boys. The MMS girls were also awarded the Excellence Award for their 510 points overall score and were awarded the last slot to World Championship.
Kumu Ka’eo believes the success of the girls’ team can be attributed to two things: 1) great robot design; and, 2) great driving skills.
“Our robot, from the early stages of a simple clawbot that could only pick up one buckyball, to the current tournament champion that can dump a whopping nine buckyballs in a single motion, has come a very long way through stages of evolution,” said Ka’eo.
“There was probably about two dozen different designs and modifications made from day one until now, and we’re still improving upon that. Everyone on the team, students and coaches alike, shared their own designs and modifications all along the way, and were actively part of the robot evolution. It’s all about being Molokaiian,” said Ka’eo.
Preparing for Anaheim
To prepare for Anaheim, the Menehune Farmers are putting their robots through modifications and testing. “The practices and trials are getting more focused and strategic with precision driving skills practices and drills and repetitive tournament situations,” said Kumu Ka’eo.
Expectations are high heading into the World Championships. “We are pulling out all the stops on this one,” said Kumu Ka’eo. “We have been given too many chances, as if God-given, not to put everything we have behind this first-time, dream-come-true, Cinderella story season.”
The MMS team has received encouragement from the head coach of IPA. He told Kumu Ka’eo that, along with his teams, MMS has a great shot at bringing home the world title to Hawaii. “As a veteran robotics coach in several robotics categories, with numerous trophies and titles at the state, national, and world levels, his word carries a lot of weight and clout,” said Ka’eo. “It has changed our typical Molokai attitude of ‘just making it to World’s’ to ‘let’s go for the title!’”
Ka’eo believes this recent success will open up new opportunities.
“With the McKinley tournament success, our robotics team has qualified not only for the 2014 VEX Robotics World Championship, but also the International VEX Summer Games in Honolulu this summer,” said Ka’eo. “We have literally gone from state to world to international overnight on the first try! Our robotics program is now world-class.
“It is no longer just about our eighth grade students, our STEM program, nor our robotics team. Now, it’s about Molokai, it’s about Maui County, and it’s about Hawaii. It has become bigger than all of us, and as such, it beckons the support and prayers of us all. This one is for Molokai! And our children are leading the way!”
Getting to Anaheim
How can the Molokai community support the tremendous efforts of these students? While MMS Principal Gary Davidson has made the commitment to send this team to Worlds, fundraising is still necessary to make this possible. The team needs a total of $16,000 to cover its expenses.
A campaign begun on Gofundme.com has been created by Nichol Helm Kahale, a parent of one of the students and a part-time teacher at MMS. As of today, the campaign has raised $6,005.