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  • By Joyce McClure

21st century in a box

Robotics League program expanding in Yap

Colonia, Yap — The people of Woleai, a coral atoll approximately 360 miles from Yap’s main island, stood amid the palm trees and lush foliage beside the WWII-era air strip. As the plane landed, they came to greet the visitors with leis and crowns of sweet-smelling plumeria. The chiefs were waiting to welcome us, as we walked down the path to the high school toward the open-air stage with its brightly painted checkerboard floor. The students sat on the lawn below the stage as we climbed the steps, shook the elders’ hands, said hello to the school principal and took our places to be introduced.

The scene was out of a Paul Gauguin painting of beautiful women, small children and men in traditional sarongs – colorful, striped, handwoven lava lavas for the women and red or blue thu’us for the men. Overhead were coconut palm and breadfruit trees that seemed to touch the sky.

Woleai maintains its traditional way of life, but the reason for our visit was pure 21st century delivered in a box. A robot in a box to be exact.

Woleai High School ponder the robot parts and where to put them.

Photos by Joyce McClure

Sent by Habele, a South Carolina-based nonprofit organization founded in 2006 by three Peace Corps volunteers who had taught in Yap’s Outer Islands, the bits and pieces that would become a working robot were carried to the island’s high school by Amelia Weiss, Habele’s director of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering,

Mathematics) programs. The students would become the latest from nearly 20 high schools across Micronesia to join Habele’s Robo League.

“We were struck by the tremendous potential we saw in students from remote island communities and formed Habele to increase academic opportunities for them,” said Matt Coleman, CEO. “The U.S. provides significant funding for education in the FSM, but existing opportunities and programs don’t always work as an integrated and efficient educational or career pipeline for the students. So rather than setting up a different system or providing a parallel system, we look for areas in the existing education structure that are seeing results and seek to turbocharge them with local buy-in and direction.”

Robotics was a perfect fit for Habele’s formula. The idea originated with a partner school in the U.S. that took an interest in the organization’s work and wanted to share equipment that had benefited their own students. In 2013, Yap Catholic High School became the first school to participate in the program that gives students hands-on experience in STEM instruction. Rather than just “dumping robotics kits on the school,” the program was designed to form long-term partnerships that identify an opportunity and provide equipment and training. YCHS formed a robotics club and began generating interest from other schools in the state.

By 2018, every high school on the main island had a robotics club that participated in the annual Robo League competition in which each school’s club is both paired and pitted against the other clubs in a game that tests the skills of the students and their robotic designs.

The statewide Robo League began getting recognition from national leaders which resulted in high schools in Chuuk and Pohnpei being added to the program. “Thanks to the Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs,” Coleman noted, “Habele was provided with the means to pursue that expansion. Our hope is to see the Robotics League benefitting students in all four states of the FSM.” For now, the program is expanding into the neighboring islands of Yap and recently brought Ulithi into the partnership.

“The Robo League has increased communication and collaboration among the high schools of Yap as well as with our community partners,” said Michael Wiencek, principal of YCHS. “This year we even created a Student Leadership Team that designed this year's game and rules.”

Woleai principal Stan Retogral noted the hands-on approach that allows students to apply theoretical lessons to the project. Four students from each class from among the school’s 154 pupils were invited to participate in the program. A group of student observers was also brought into Weiss’s day-long training.

“You’ll develop skills for a lifetime,” Weiss told the students, including “teamwork and perseverance.”

She invited a student to open the box, and the parts were revealed. Shy at first, but with Weiss’s encouragement, the boys and girls formed into two teams and set to work pouring over the instructions, identifying the parts, seeing which ones fit where. Before long, a quiet cacophony of voices was sharing, comparing and testing the ingredients. Weiss moved among them, asking questions and encouraging everyone to explore. Lunchtime arrived but the students didn’t want to stop.

Nearly six hours later, the robot was complete. Time to test it. On the first try, the wheels didn’t spin properly. Back to the instructions. Missing parts were found and inserted. The circle expanded again to give room for the robot to turn and spin and pick up a tennis ball included in the kit. The switch was flipped and the remote control’s joy sticks pressed. A cheer went up as the metal contraption came to life, racing across the concrete floor, the students laughing and clapping as it showed what it could do.

The basic kit will be added to in six or seven weeks when a larger box arrives on the island with materials for a more expansive design. Then the real work will begin as Woleai’s Robotics Club creates their entry for the 2019 Robo League competition.

“We’ve already seen very real results,” said Coleman. “In 2017, students from YCHS represented the FSM in an international robotics challenge in Washington, D.C. One of those competitors is now studying engineering in the United States.”



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