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Maui Prep advances to VEX IQ Robotics State Championship

By BY CINDY SCHUMACHER - | Feb 9, 2017

Maui Prep iPueo Robotics Team members talk about the risks and rewards of doing a major rebuild of their robot with only two weeks to go before state championships. From left, coach Branden Hazlet conducts analysis with eighth-graders Bennett Zeigler and Teanu Rodriguez-Furtado. PHOTO COURTESY OF MAUI PREP.

NAPILI – The Maui League VEX IQ Robotics finals took place on Saturday, Jan. 28, at Lokelani Intermediate School in Kihei. The competing school teams – Lahaina Intermediate, Maui Preparatory Academy, Pukalani Elementary, Pomaikai Elementary, Lokelani Intermediate, Kalama Intermediate and Kamalii Elementary – participated in the enthusiasm-charged event.

At the elementary level, Maui Prep, Pomaikai and Pukalani are moving on to the state championships in Honolulu on Feb. 20. Maui Prep has three middle school robots that qualified and is the only middle school team from Maui competing at the state contest. Additionally, Maui Prep Team 10538C won the Maui League Teamwork Champion Award.

The students are still spending countless hours designing, building, programming and testing their robots with the goal of advancing to the tenth VEX IQ Robotics World Championship on April 19-25, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.

“The thing that amazes me is how hard the kids work on these robots,” said teacher and coach Branden Hazlet, director of technology for Maui Prep.

“They give so much time, energy and creative thought to develop their machines. The students come up with some pretty complex structures and great little contraptions with levers, pulleys, pivoting arms, gear reductions, conveyors, launchers, chains and sprockets driving three stage lifts!”

Maui Prep students celebrate their qualification to the State VEX IQ Championship at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu on Feb. 20, 2017. Pictured (from left) are: front row — Luka Boote, Bishop Worth, Caleb Chumley and Dylan Falk; middle row — Luna Partridge, Bennett Bluh, Eli Hazlet, Renner Chumley, Tenzin Chogyal and Andrew Nguyen; tallest in back row — Brady Golden. Not pictured are Bennett Zeigler, Teanu Rodriguez-Furtado, Jimmy Falk, Team captain Jerone Samari and coach Branden Hazlet. PHOTO BY CINDY SCHUMACHER.

What astonishes Hazlet is that anything the students dream up, the team tries to build. “Then the students program the electronics to give accurate motion to their machines and begin testing various systems,” he explained.

“Development of these robots is not a linear one-time build, but consists of months of improvement cycles. The students test their designs to understand strengths and areas of need, and are constantly brainstorming to engineer new designs.”

Attending the VEX IQ competitions, one sees the magic in the students and how their skills grow. They throw themselves into the classic engineering feedback process of design, test, analyze and redesign, on the spot.

The VEX IQ Challenge is played on a four-foot by eight-foot rectangular field. Two robots compete in the Teamwork Challenge as an alliance in 60-second teamwork matches, working collaboratively to score points. Teams also compete in two additional challenges. The Robot Skills Challenge requires each robot to operate under driver control. The Programming Skills Challenge requires each robot to score points without any driver inputs. The object of the game is to get the highest score by putting Hexballs in their color-coded zones and goals and by parking and balancing robots on the bridge.

In any match, the teams are cooperating to help each other do their best and raise both teams’ average score. However, the competition comes into it when the scores are compared at the end of 8-12 rounds.

“It is a great model,” Hazlet explained. “While there is the motivation of the scoring regime, there is the built-in design where the incentive is to help each other and work with each other’s strengths across teams.”

“You see the teams churning with ideas as they constantly banter about new strategies and then try to create solutions for improvement,” noted Hazlet. “It is beautiful to see and hear the team pushing themselves, struggling to communicate their design ideas in words and drawings, cooperating to engineer mechanisms and trying to analyze function problems. Hence, they rebuild to optimize some aspect of the robot.”

From a teaching perspective, Hazlet loves the learning journey of robotics for the students as a way they get to see and test their ideas in real time. “Even though the overall robot refinement takes months, we can go from idea to prototype testing for a specific mechanism in just one after-school practice session,” he said.

“The students can then say, ‘OK, so we learned that X impacts Y positively, but negatively impacts Z, and we have to balance that against an overall goal of W,'” Hazlet explained. “Learning happens in these discussions, and I as a teacher and coach didn’t have to tell them what to think. I help contextualize and guide, but they prove it to themselves by using a discovery process they are personally invested in because they generated the concept design to be tested.”

For example, in many builds Hazlet has the students work with gear ratios where the students are balancing speed against torque in gearing a motor to output for a specific function. This could be abstract for a sixth-grader, but in implementing their own design, the students are very invested in close observation and analysis of the outcome. They see incrementally different results as they try to optimize some outcome.

“I think of robotics as a great embodiment of the learning process,” Hazlet said. “Building those robots allows our students to merge creativity, research, systematic observation, technical communication, strategic analysis, structural design, computer programming and a lot of hard work into a package of awesome!”

Maui Prep seventh-grader Dylan Falk said, “It gets really exciting the more we work on our robots and we figure out new ideas. Robotics is a great way to have fun!”

Falk’s teammate, eighth-grader Brady Golden, added, “We have to know measurements and strategy. In fact, geometry is key when building robots due to the importance of the symmetry and structural support of the designs.”

Remarkably, Maui Prep fourth-grader Tenzin Chogyal thinks that, “Robotics is a challenge, it is fun and it’s pressure, which is more fun!”

Luka Boote, Maui Prep fifth-grader, summed up the VEX IQ Maui League finals: “It encourages teamwork and enriches experience!”

Maui Prep appreciates the generosity and community support of Maui Economic Development Board, Maui Electric, Hawaiian Airlines and Hawaii Community Foundation, without whom they couldn’t run their robotics program.

“Additionally, we fundraise with T-shirt sales, burrito nights, movie nights and grant-writing,” said Hazlet. “Robotics programs teach our students fundamental innovation processes such as creative vision, technical data and collaborative teamwork. We need to invest in our future leaders!”