Hanalei School Robotics Club overcomes obstacles, excels at states

HANALEI — Hanalei School’s Robotics Club placed first in programming and seventh overall out of 42 schools in the First LEGO League state competition in December.

That marked the highest overall finish from a Kauai- based school in the competition — and it almost didn’t happened.

During the competition, sixth-grader Mason Stewart was trapped in Hanalei due to a flash flood that closed down Hanalei Bridge. Along with Mason was the club’s assistant coach, Ryan McGill, who had the robot in his possession.

“After all this hard work, we had that torrential rain and they closed the bridge,” said Kari Derr, parent volunteer and mother of the team’s captain, Kalen Derr. “Mason was stuck here along with Ryan and the robot. If we didn’t bring the robot to competition, we would have been disqualified.”

So with his six other teammates relying on him, Mason responded in James Bond fashion.

“We were like halfway across and got stuck, and they made everyone turn around. We were stuck at school, so my friend’s mom got me out of school and took me to the beach and got a Jet Ski across to the other side of the bridge,” Mason told The Garden Island.

Having missed his original flight due to the road closure, he was racing against time to make his rescheduled flight. And there was another delay. The hunters who offered him a ride needed to make a stop first — to unload the dead pig that was on the back of their Jet Ski.

“So we were going across … and we had to get that into their truck,” Mason said. “We didn’t think we were going to make it for this flight either, but we made it five minutes before the flight was going to leave.”

As for McGill, he was stranded with the robot and had to take a boat across the river.

But Derr said if the Jet Ski and boat didn’t work out, there were plenty of people in the community willing to help.

“Laird Hamilton even offered to bring the robot over on his Jet Ski. We had the fire department offer to come down and get it for us. There was so much community support and involvement,” she said.

Eventually, Mason and Kalen made it to the airport and to Oahu, where they put the state on notice with their robot’s performance.

“This is a great team, especially these two (Mason and Kalen),” said third-grade teacher and team head coach, Brent Andrews. “I always tell them how it’s like the grasshopper eventually passes the master. These two kids know more than I do about the program.”

Kalen, who was the lead programmer for the team of seven, showed TGI the sophistication of the robot they built. The robot is hooked up to the programming software via Bluetooth or a USB.

“When it’s downloaded into the robot, it reads the program and then it knows which ports to use, so if we programmed it to move 150 degrees, it’ll do that,” he said.

With all this work and support from the Hanalei community, including Hanalei School Foundation and Aloha Angels who helped fund the team’s flights and supplies, Derr was pleased everything worked out in the end.

“It really was a community effort,” she said.


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