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Kohala Middle and High School robotics

Morgan Swan makes an adjustment to a robot during a demonstration at the Kohala Complex 21st Century Spring Fest. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Morgan Swan makes an adjustment to a robot during a demonstration at the Kohala Complex 21st Century Spring Fest. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Evan Lawrence, left, with Kaimi Hook, both members of the Kohala Robotics team, demonstrate how the robots are operated at the Kohala Complex 21st Century Spring Fest. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Evan Lawrence, left, with Kaimi Hook, both members of the Kohala Robotics team, demonstrate how the robots are operated at the Kohala Complex 21st Century Spring Fest. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Kaliko Dela Cruz stands beside one of the robots that will be used in an upcoming competition. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Kaliko Dela Cruz stands beside one of the robots that will be used in an upcoming competition. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Robots built by the Kohala High Robotics Team are on display at the Kohala Complex 21st Century Spring Fest. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Robots built by the Kohala High Robotics Team are on display at the Kohala Complex 21st Century Spring Fest. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
From left, students Morgan Swan, Jada Hook, Kaimi Hook, Evan Lawrence, and Kaliko Dela Cruz, pose with their robots with teachers Cheryl Cabrera, Alvin Kawamoto, Eric Dela Cruz, and Fern White. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO | SPECIAL TO NHN)
From left, students Morgan Swan, Jada Hook, Kaimi Hook, Evan Lawrence, and Kaliko Dela Cruz, pose with their robots with teachers Cheryl Cabrera, Alvin Kawamoto, Eric Dela Cruz, and Fern White. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO | SPECIAL TO NHN)
Visitors to the Kohala Complex 21st Century Spring Fest were able to learn about and interact with robots built by the Kohala Robotics team. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Visitors to the Kohala Complex 21st Century Spring Fest were able to learn about and interact with robots built by the Kohala Robotics team. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)

Kohala School Robotics has met a major milestone – two groups of their middle school and a group of their high school students will be heading to the VEX Robotics World Championship in Anaheim, Calif., from April 23 to 26, at the Anaheim Convention Center.

For the middle schoolers, it’s a “three-peat,” according to program director, Fern White.

In the three years of the VEX program’s existence the junior students have attended the World Championships all three times – in their rookie year and their next two years.

In this year’s competition, the two middle school groups were undefeated against 34 teams when they won the Hawaii State Middle School VEX competition. Kohala’s high school robotics team members were also tournament finalists, earning second place at the VEX Hawaii State Championships for all ages, which includes 40 teams.

“What makes qualifying for this year’s world championships for VEX a little more special is the number of qualifying spots to world games,” White said. “For Hawaii, it was changed. In year’s past we had 31 spots for Hawaii teams to go. This year, there were only 13 total.”

The 2014 VEX Robotics World Championship will include top teams from more than 400 VEX Robotics Competition tournaments around the world. The “VEX” in VEX robotics, is derived from “vector extensions.” VEX teams will each build robots that can play the game “Toss Up.”

Through the three main skills, programming, building and driving the robot, students learn a multitude of skills. Beyond the basic science, technology, engineering and math, White said they also learn how to create plans, how to communicate their needs, how to problem solve, how to speak publicly, and how to work with others.

Kohala’s robotics beginnings

White said Kohala dissolved their earlier electric car program and changed to robotics in about 2007. Gov. Linda Lingle had started an initiative program to expand robotics in schools, so they were able to get funding.

Jeanette Snelling, Kohala High School principal, said it was important to bring robotics into the school’s 21st century program.

“It was a really natural fit to STEM education,” Snelling said.

Snelling said that under White’s guidance, they envisioned bridging the program from middle to high school.

“It really does start with the people who are dedicated to growing the programs and we are fortunate to having them and the parents,” Snelling said.

White said when switching to robotics, first thing she did was to recruit mentors.

“I worked to bring great people together,” she said.

Instructors now include White, a Kohala High School teacher, Alvin Kawamoto, who retired after 35 years teaching, Cheryl Cabrera, who works at the high school, and Eric Dela Cruz, who owns his own mechanical services company.

Kohala Middle School students attending the World Championships are: eighth grader Jarom Kaimi Hook, seventh graders Evan Lawrence, Joseph Pasco and Morgan Swan, and sixth grader Jada Hook. Kohala High School students include Elijah Kaliko Dela Cruz and Joshua Page, both in 10th grade.

Middle school mentor Kawamoto got involved three years ago, when White asked him to participate. He quickly integrated into the robotics world and became key to the school’s success.

For Eric Dela Cruz, all four of his sons have either been involved in the school’s electric car or robotics programs. His son Kaliko Dela Cruz, a sophomore at Kohala High School, is an integral part of the high school team, but last year, tragedy struck the family.

“Last season we thought we weren’t going to make it because Kaliko had a cerebral aneurysm,” Eric Dela Cruz said. “We weren’t sure we were going to have a team because he was the main driver to the robot.”

Despite his injury in September and after spending a month in a hospital on Oahu, Kaliko Dela Cruz worked hard on recovery and refused to give up. With the help of his teammates and good programming, he was able to continue to compete last year and this year as well.

“I went to robotics in a wheelchair,” Kaliko Dela Cruz said. “And they decided because I was the driver, I should keep on driving.”

This year, he is much better physically, but he still drives with one hand until he is completely healed. Kaliko said that he believes his accident has actually strengthened his abilities.

“I used to only be good at building and driving, but now I’m good at programming, driving and my speech skills have gotten better than before,” he said of his speech therapy.

“We rise to the challenge,” he added.

Lara Hook, a mother of six, has two children in the robotics program at the school and one more who will be starting soon. She said she loves that the program teaches students how to problem solve and think.

“I think it helped his school work,” she said of her son, Kaimi Hook. “He is so motivated – he wants to do this, so his grades are where they need to be or better.”

Kaimi Hook said that because of the program, he knows already that he’d like to become a mechanical engineer.

“My favorite part is building,” said Kaimi Hook. “Sometimes I question it because things don’t work. But I take a deep breath and it starts to work out again.”

Evan Lawrence, a seventh grader, said he attended his first VEX robotics meeting at the library this year and he immediately decided to join.

“I like building stuff – I have a passion for it,” Lawrence said.

He said the robotics has already made a difference in his math abilities.

Finding funding

White said the toughest part of the whole program is finding funding. She said that often, the mentors reach into their own pockets to cover supplies and necessities.

Despite the fundraising challenges, over the years, the school’s robotics students have been to competitions in Japan, and in several U.S. cities, including Dallas, Orlando, Anaheim, and others. With 60 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, the program is needed in the area.

“From my standpoint, I think it is all worth it,” White said. “If one of our Kohala keiki ends up contributing somehow in a positive way (in the community), what more than can we ask for?”

The trip to the VEX World Championship will cost the robotics team about $15,000 in room board, air and land travel and food costs. The group is still in the middle of their fundraising work. To give a tax-deductible donation to the robotics program, send it to Kohala High School P.O. Box 279, Kapaau, HI, 96755. For more information, call 889-7117, or visit their Facebook page.