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Summer 2010

‘Iobotics: The Roar of Scoreboards, the Flash of the Crowd
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Summer 2010 - Cover Story

‘Iobotics: The Roar of Scoreboards, The Flash of the Crowd

Students in the VEX competition build a robot that picks up and throws Nerf footballs and is maneuvered by remote controls.
To many, the term robotics conjures images of droid C-3P0 from Star Wars. Others may dream of a robot to iron and fold clothes. Nothing so mundane. At ‘Iolani, robotics means soaring imaginations, intense competitions, intricate machines, skillful drivers and programmers, and, of course, those roaring crowds and flashing scoreboards.

How it all began

In 1989, entrepreneur and creative thinker Dean Kamen, best known for inventing the two-wheel self-balancing Segway, founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

Matthew Ito ’10, Sean Cockey’10 , and Emily Cockey ’11 pose with their 2008 robot and NASA specialist and FRC announcer Mark Leon, far left, at a recent competition and exhibit.
Kamen was concerned with America’s diminishing cadre of hands-on engineers in the burgeoning world of technology. He established FIRST “to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.” Based in New Hampshire, FIRST is a not-for-profit public charity that designs accessible, innovative robotics programs and competitions.

Since the first competition in 1992 in a New Hampshire high school gymnasium, FIRST has grown to include hundreds of thousands of young people from all over the world. Not only are the contests electrifying, they are designed to encourage “gracious professionalism,” a notion expressed by Dr. Woodie Flowers, FIRST National Advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at MIT.

This concept bears a surprising resemblance to ‘Iolani’s One Team model, where fierce competition and mutual gain are integrated notions. A successful team needs to not only build a robust robot, but also to make alliances with teams. The games are played with partners and one day’s opponent may be the next day’s partner. In addition, the strategy allows winners to accrue opponents’ points so crushing another team is disadvantageous.

The 2010 FRC team included students in ninth to twelfth grades building the most complex robots.
The competitions remind ‘Iolani mentor and Coach Jeff Malins ’99 of American football without dancing in the end zone or chest-bumping.  There is a free exchange of ideas among teams who build upon the others’ expertise and problem-solving abilities. The competitions are designed with enough teamwork, variety, and complexity that sharing knowledge is an aid rather than a liability.

Levels of Robotics

There are different levels of complexity to organized robotics. Each needs at least one adult mentor. ‘Iobotics faculty advisor and science teacher Lara Lee welcomes volunteer mentors who enjoy working with bright students and technical challenges.

First Lego League students work on their robot made of Lego pieces.
One level is FIRST Lego League, FLL, which includes fourth through eighth grades. Within this group is the Junior FLL which includes students as young as kindergartners and is an extension of the science program in the lower school. Dr. Holly Chung Lindsay and her husband, physics teacher Dr. Mark Lindsay, coach these budding scientists. The JFLL and FLL engage in authentic research. This past season’s challenge was called “Smart Moves” and examined transportation issues. The students’ solution was a “SMAP,” a computer interface system that linked all modes of transportation available on Oahu in the future. The Lindsays have coached two state championship and two runner-up teams. 

The next level at ‘Iolani takes place at the intermediate stage with a competition run by a VEX, a robotics company and design system that manufactures the components in the competitions. VEX is a brand name; think Erector Sets on steroids. 

Spencer Wakahiro ’13 adjusts the botball robot which picks up rubber ducks and places them on a colored line.
One of the techies who helped launch robotics at ‘Iolani Winston Dang ’73, a software developer for the Kuali Foundation at the University of Hawai‘i, mentors not only VEX, but also Botball and FLL. He was instrumental in ‘Iobotics qualifying to compete in the VEX Robotic World Championships in Dallas for three consecutive years since the contest’s inception. Dang has also taught summer session robotics classes in ‘Iolani’s Lower School.

The third level is FIRST Robotics Competition, FRC, which includes ninth to twelfth grades. The FRC robots are big and complicated with all the components built from the ground up. Jeff Malins ’99, whose real job is vice-president of Research and Development at TeamPraxis, volunteers countless hours to mentor this group with the assistance of Dugan Yoon ’77, Keith Molina, Errol Wong and Mike Cockey.

‘Iobotics officers Sean Cockey ’10, Mark Williams ‘10, and Lauren Faris ’11 radiate enthusiasm when they discuss robotics competitions.  Though time-consuming, the team-based problem solving, planning, designing, and building holds them in thrall.

Other incentives to take on these challenges are the college scholarships offered to robotics participants, usually in computer science, math, and engineering. A few examples include a renewable half-tuition scholarship at Boston University and up to $20,000 in aid at Carnegie Melon.

‘Iolani Gets Hooked

‘Iolani began to participate in robotics in 2007. In contrast, Waialua and McKinley high schools have been active in robotics for about ten years. ‘Iobotics president Sean Cockey’10 admits those schools are probably Hawaii’s two best teams due to their extensive experience. Sponsorship money is also important in the whirring world of robotics because the big, hand-built robots in the FRC competitions require expensive tools and experienced engineers as mentors. ‘Iolani sponsors include BAE, NASA, DataHouse (parent company of TeamPraxis), and AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications Electronics Association). ‘Iobotics hopes to gain additional sponsors to sustain and grow its programs.

The Key is Hands-On

In the VEX category, students have one year to prepare their robots for competition. All teams begin with approximately the same materials (manufactured by VEX). The playing field is 144 square feet though the game differs each year. Each robot must be 18 inches by 18 inches at the beginning.  Consequently, students build folding kickers, arms, and other extensions.

Logan Davis ’13, Freedie Wheeler ’11 and Sean Cockey ’10 pilot one of the VEX robots during a 2009-10 competition.
This year’s competition required students build a robot that could carry or propel balls of three differing sizes over a barrier, through holes in a divider, and feed them into narrow tubes. 

The most complex robots are the ones constructed for FRC competitions. The dimensions of these robots have to be 28 by 38 by 60-inches or less, and the ‘bots can weigh a maximum of 120-pounds before the batteries and bumpers are added. Not only are these are big, complicated machines, which the mentors and students build from scratch, but construction is limited to six weeks.

‘Iobotics students built the 2010 FRC robot to kick a soccer ball towards a goal.
This year’s FRC game was called Breakaway. It was robotic soccer except that two big bumps rose in the middle of the 27 by 54-foot field and three teams played against three teams with a total of twelve balls.  Like VEX, partners are random until the elimination rounds, when teams begin to pick their partners. Teams are evaluated not only on how they play the game, but on their plan, their involvement and outreach, mentoring other teams (gracious professionalism), and their business plan.

“You don’t know (what the strategy will be) until you’re there,” says Malins. “It’s like football, where your strategy changes with your opponent. Some of the biggest decisions are made on the field."

‘Iobotics participated in the VEX World Championships in Dallas in April.

The 2009 VEX robot is surrounded by the team that built it.
“There were 400 teams from 14 countries competing and there was electricity in the air as they worked side-by-side with students from around the world,” says FRC coach and science teacher Gail Tuthill.  

‘Iolani competed against 97 other teams, lost the first two matches, then won the next six matches and finished 14th in the division.

“We can proudly say, at least, that the team that beat us finished up as the World Champions!” Tuthill adds. “We were totally jazzed to receive the Create Award for our division.  The Create Award recognizes a robot design that incorporates a creative engineering solution to the design challenges of this game.” 

The 40-plus ‘Iobotics members are the brilliant technologists of the future. 

“We are training innovators and entrepreneurs,” Malins notes. “To do this, we need to combine book work with getting our hands dirty and building. Hands-on is the key.”

Debby Atkinson is a crime fiction novelist (, is married to Dr. Robert Atkinson and is the mother of Egen ’06 and Andrew ’09.