Highlands Robotics Team To Compete On International Stage

Members of the Highlands Intermediate robotics team participating in the Pan Pacific VEX Robotics Championship, where they won the Excellence Award. They are (from left) Leeden Raquel, Raena Anne Baetiong, Dylan Tomi, Sean Santiago and Geordan Alferos. Photo from Joan Okai.

Today marks the opening of a three-day battle for the best bot at the VEX Robotics Competition World Championship in Anaheim, Calif., and among the 15,000 participants is an eight-student team from Highlands Intermediate School in Pearl City.

The Highlands robotics team, which is comprised of seventh- and eighth-graders, joins others from Canada, China, Colombia, Mexico, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, as well as other U.S. teams in the competition.

Leading up to their departure last week, the Highlands students were busy practicing and perfecting their programming.

“The students are constantly tweaking their robot by making minor changes to improve its efficiency,” explained team adviser Joan Okai, who teaches life science and STEM robotics at the school.

The event attracts top high school and middle school teams that have placed in tournaments throughout the year. In order to qualify for the championship, the Highlands team competed in a number of events – and was named the tournament champion at two of them. It won the Excellence Award at another contest, and placed first at the FUTURE Foundation Sustainable Design Robot Construction Challenge.

At the Anaheim world championships, students will compete in an event called Sack Attack, in which they must guide their robot to place sacks in three different goals within two minutes.

This year’s competitors have a lot to live up to, as Highlands has been cultivating a tradition of success in robotics. Last year, two teams from the school qualified for the world championship event; one team won an award for its superior teamwork, while the other was recognized for its design.

“Three of the seventh-graders who are now eighth-graders are returning for their second year,” Okai said. “This year’s success is due largely to their dedication and commitment toward the team.”

While the team has high hopes for the competition, it’s not all about winning. They also said that they look forward to meeting other students and learning skills and techniques from the other teams.

“The most valuable thing the students learn from the Highlands Intermediate Robotics program is the commitment and dedication that comes from being part of a team. They learn to work well with others and learn different job skills,” Okai explained.

The program also provides an arena for students to learn highly valued STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills.

“They learn all kinds of technology, go through the science inquiry process, use the math in science, and best all, design and build robots,” Okai said. “Many see computer science and engineering in their futures as a result of being on our team.”

Highlands places a strong emphasis on STEM education, and its Science Olympiad Team recently was recognized by the state House for taking first place in March at the Hawaii State Science Olympiad.