Colonia, Yap— “It’s a slam dunk!” hollered the play-by-play commentator and master of ceremonies, Larry Raigatel. Holding a round, red, plastic donut in its slender, outstretched arm, the metal robot seemed to stare with disbelief as its competitor, a perky little metal contraption not averse to being pushy when it comes to blocking, claimed the spindle and handily dropped its own blue plastic donut on it. “One more point for the blues!” called Raigatel to the audience’s cheers and clapping.
Looking very much like battery-operated versions of the imaginative creatures that millions of children have screwed together for more than a century with parts from an Erector set, the robots were engaged in combat during Yap Robo Day on May 21 at the Yap Sports Complex. Five school teams from Outer Island High School, Yap Catholic High School, SDA School, Christian Faith Academy and Yap High School came together for the culmination of the school-year long project to show what their hand-made robots could do in the elimination-style robotics competition.
Established by Habele, a U.S.-based nonprofit founded by former Peace Corps Volunteers that “empowers students throughout the isolated islands of Micronesia,” the Yap Robo League was launched in 2011. According to Habele founder and president Neil Mellen, the project provided students at two remote island schools with practical experience in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. In 2017, a grant from the Office of Insular Affairs allowed the program to expand and become a statewide, student-driven league when three students and their sponsor, Marino Juanito Harteligiye, were flown in from Ulithi by PMA to participate.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular and International Affairs Doug Domenech observed in a written statement that the students had turned “tiny scraps of metal and plastic into complicated robots that are able to complete complex tasks.” He challenged them to “apply the same principles as you continue through life and pursue your own ambitious goals for education and growth in the future."
But for now one robot at least seemed perplexed. Urged on by its human handler’s remote control and clutching its red donut, it spun around on its wheels and whirred toward the other side of the playing field to drop its cargo on another spindle with audience cheers urging it on. But there was no time to take a bow; it fixed its metal gaze on another nearby donut and, with a few jerks and jabs, picked it for another attempted dunk and more points.
Each school received a box at the beginning of the school year filled with parts and a basic assembly guide. It was up to the student teams to take it from there and create their entry into the final event. After a heated series of multi-team qualification games and elimination battles, Yap Catholic High School’s team emerged as the winner and Outer Islands High School earned a close second place. During the second of three final face-off rounds, the two schools were tied, creating some excited commentary from Raigatel that had the crowd on the edge of their seats.
On hand to cheer on the teams were their families, friends and classmates who gathered to watch the timed matches in which the robots race to pick up the colored donuts and place them on spindles and in corner goals, or scramble to block their opponents as they attempt to do the same.
FSM Vice President Yosiwo P. George was also on hand and told the assembled crowd that it was his hope that the students would share their experience with students in the other FSM states. In addition, students in Chaminade College Preparatory School in Los Angeles and South River High School in Edgewater, Maryland were eagerly waiting to hear the results. A key to the project’s sustainability and success has been the partnerships developed between the two U.S. schools and those in Yap, said Mellen, with “generous material donations and peer-to-peer technical assistance.”
The Yap State Department of Education supported and prioritized the work throughout the year while Yap State Public Service Corporation and Pacific Mission Aviation helped guide the teams by serving as teachers and mentors. YSPSC and PMA even created their own demonstration robots. The YSPSC machine entertained the crowd during intermission with its donut-dunking talents and wheelies.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Riley was unable to attend due to a mechanical malfunction on his Guam-Pohnpei flight, but sent remarks that were read aloud to the audience and students. “You are the next generation,” he said, “and you will be the linchpin to Yap’s future. Those of you who excel by seizing the opportunities of the Robo League and other education avenues have the ability, and obligation, to use those skills and resources to be leaders.”
It was noted by one attendee that the airplane Ambassador Riley was to have traveled on might have benefited from the mechanical skills of the Robo League’s student members. A future in robotic aviation repair obviously awaits the students in FSM, she observed.