April 20, 2014 Honolulu, Hawaii

For the first time in history, robots consumed the state as the FIRST Robotics Championship kicked off at Blaisdell Arena. Over 500 teams from across the United States and around the world are present to compete in FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, & the FIRST Robotics Competition. This is the first time a championship has ever been held in Hawaii, vastly differing from previous host power-house cities such as Orlando, Houston, Atlanta and most recently, St. Louis.        

Present in the opening ceremonies was Team 359 of Waialua Robotics, without which a Hawaiian championship would not have been possible. The Hawaiian Kids were the recipients of the Championship Chairman’s Award in 2011, honoring their effort in using FIRST to “transform a culture.”

Waialua Robotics began in 1999, as not only the first Hawaii FRC team, but also the first robotics-related program in Hawaii. Their strengths & successes are attributed to their emphasis on sustainability, education, and outreach; all led by the optimistic and focused drive of a diverse group of students, mentors & volunteers.

Despite being from an economically disadvantaged agricultural community, 359 never let their past affect the outcome of their future. After declining advancement to the Championship year after year due to lack of funds, the team created their current “long-term sustainability plan,” which veers from fundraising & focuses on business partnerships, public demonstrations, self-written state/federal grants, & most importantly: A designated robotics account. From 2003 to 2011, the account had enough resources to run the program for at least 3 years without sponsors. This proved to be crucial during 359’s 2009 season, as they suffered budget-cuts from the Board of Education, a decrease in sponsorships, & the threat of their school complex shutting down. $35,000 from the fund was set aside to start a scholarship program, which continues to assist 100% of qualified student members in pursuing higher education. Their sustainability doesn’t only help their team, but has allowed them to extend their resources to other teams & programs as well. Computers over two years old are replaced and then donated to other schools & programs. Since 2005, the team has acquired over 3.8 million dollars for robotics and other education/technology related programs.

When most people think “robotics” the common stereotype is a group of nerdy science geeks, but uniqueness is an attribute that 359 has always possessed. The team started with 18 students, and has consisted of as few as 6, but their outstanding spirit was ever present. From 2007 to 2010, the team grew from 12 to 31, over half of which were girls. In fact, girls have outnumbered boys on the team since 2008.  Of the 31 racially diverse students, 27 were athletes, & all were actively involved in other extra-curricular activities.
“We’ve had class-clowns, prom queens, you name it,” explains Coordinator Glenn Lee. “Our diversity is one of our main strengths; everyone brings something to the team.” 

To ensure quality and foster each individual’s talents, members are interviewed and then divided among 4 functional sub-teams: administration, construction, documentation, and support, with concentrated divisions within.

At Waialua High, robotics has been integrated into a STEM career core pathway with those on the construction sub-team in a robotics-oriented metals or electronics class and those on the documentation sub-team in a communications/arts class. Rookies to the team are taught their skill & guided by veterans in what is known as transition mentoring. Students are also involved in various robotics events and activities year-round, in order to spread the message of FIRST.

“People always wonder how we can have hundreds of mentors,” says Captain William Blaser, III. “What they don’t realize is that mentors aren’t just engineers. Hundreds of parents, teachers, political leaders, and community members work closely with our team to assist & inspire our students.”

What is even more amazing about this group of students is the closeness of the partnerships they have created. CEOs of their corporate sponsors, local political leaders, & even our former governor could easily tell you each of their first names.

As the foundation of robotics in Hawaii, 359 assumes the responsibility of expanding FIRST in their state. They assist others by hosting workshops, sharing resources, & most importantly: mentoring. Since 2008, they held a workshop explaining the new control system, and every year since then they have held a CADD Master CAM workshop & sustainability/management workshop in the hopes that they can inspire others to go beyond robotics simply being an after school club. They mentor over 20 Hawaii FRC teams, in addition to collaboration with countless teams from around the world. Mentoring includes the use of their extensive facilities, collaboration of ideas & use of mentors and students. In addition, they mentor several FLL and Botball teams, 2 of which they fully fund & coordinate. In 2009, 359 expanded their program to include VEX which serves as a training arena for new and upcoming members as well as an opportunity for FRC veterans to transfer their knowledge. In 2009 the team went one step further by working with their district representative to initiate and obtain a $750,000 House Bill known as the STEM Robotics Facilities Grant. This grant enables funds for improvement of their robotics facilities and the purchasing of updated technologies, which helped to broaden their horizon of mentorship.

All the buzz surrounding Team 359’s success over the years attracted a lot of attention, attention that 359 saw as an opportunity to spread FIRST’s mission. Not only have they been featured in countless newspapers such as The Honolulu Advertiser & Honolulu Star-Bulletin, but they have also graced the cover of Hana Hou, Hawaiian Airline’s magazine distributed on every flight. The team was also featured on various local news channels, Olelo TV, PBS, a segment of Hawaii Public Radio, a program for George Lucas Films’ Educational Foundation, and Oceanic Time Warner Cable.

In addition to media, the team maintains the values that FIRST has instilled in them through outreach. In 2007, 359 created a separate sub-program dedicated to helping other teams & education related programs. They organize and host four blood drives a year, strengthen their partnerships by participating in community service, (such as clean-ups, tech fairs & demonstrations state-wide) and even hold an annual state-wide robotics open house and a celebratory luau to recognize and thank their community and sponsors.

Team 359 refused to settle for national impact and the first step to going global was pumping up the “robo-aloha spirit” in their home state. Mr. Lee and several other mentors became members of The Hawaii Scholastic Robotics Alliance & Hawaii Robotics Planning Committee, organizations that worked towards making the HI Regional a reality. They also collaborated with the Hawaii State Legislature on former Governor Linda Lingle's STEM initiative bill, and attended legislative meetings to provide input on the resources needed to support robotics programs, offering ideas on networks of mentors, training, workshops & stipends for teachers. In addition, team members testified on bills 844 & 1268, which dealt with sustaining innovations in education through STEM & FIRST. Their attempts to increase state backing for robotics helped win approval for an allocation of $1,402,230 for “existing creative media education programs," including $314,925 specifically for robotics & applied learning programs leading to the formation of ROC (The Regional Organizing Committee.) In addition, 359 influenced one of their sponsors to contribute the funding they provided to them to ROC instead so that other teams could benefit. For 8 years there were only 4 FRC teams in Hawaii. With the help of the 359, in 2008 the count jumped to 25, resulting in over 30% of Hawaii Schools having robotics teams, the highest percentage of any state in the nation.

After the success of the HI Regional, 359 returned their attention to expansion. In October 2007, mentors were sent to Japan to visit schools believed to be interested in starting teams. 359 began communicating with schools across the pacific, including Japan, the Philippines, and Guam. Kapolei High also traveled to Japan as representatives for the HI-JP Super School Collaboration and presented 359’s team video. That year W.I.N.C. - the Waialua International Network of Collaborations was also launched. This web of contacts spans across the globe & consists of one representative for each designated region active in FIRST, serving the objective of partnering rookie teams with near-by veteran teams, as well as establishing personal relationships and providing mentoring opportunities. 2009 also brought the implementation of FIRST in a Flash, a resource initiative for teams which includes a guide to building and maintaining a robotics program on a convenient flash drive.

That fall the team also traveled to Japan themselves to participate in a robotics tournament and embark on a robotics tour. They visited various schools and worked to promote FIRST and establish FRC teams despite debates concerning technology transfers in Asia.

“We always knew that Hawaii was the connection point for FIRST but our experience in Japan just reassured us that we were on the right track and that maybe a Championship in Hawaii wasn’t such a farfetched idea.”

Despite all odds, the Hawaiian Kids made that ideality an actuality. Though we have not yet seen the day when a team from every country is present in the pits, one thing is for sure: 359’s logo on the big screen as they won the Chairman’s Award in 2011 really set things in motion for FIRST.

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