The $10,000 Question in STEM

By: Keegan Ohta

22 March 2019

With $10,000 and six weeks to spend it, most people probably wouldn’t choose to spend it building a 4-foot tall, 125-pound robot.

Across the state of Hawaii, schools are preparing for the FIRST Robotics Competition, or FRC, the competition with the biggest robots in the world on display.

From March 28-30, a total of 37 schools will compete at the Stan Sheriff Center, including schools from Hawaii, the continental U.S., and other countries.

The students have six weeks to build a robot, and most teams work to improve their designs up until the last day, when robots have to be bagged up and can’t be touched until the competition.

Here’s the catch: In most cases, for a robot to have a chance at competing, teams need to buy a $5,000 kit of parts and spend another $5,000 to register for the tournament.

For most Hawaii schools, this regional competition is their biggest opportunity to shine in robotics.

“In this competition for us, it’s win or bust,” said Sean Santiago, mentor for the Pearl City High School FRC team. “In the other competition, VEX robotics, that we compete in, you get multiple opportunities to have a chance at moving up. In this competition, for us, if you don’t win, that’s it.”

More celebrated teams in Hawaii have opportunities to go elsewhere in their endeavors to play.

For example, Waialua High and Intermediate School have been the pinnacle of robotics since robotics first arrived in Hawaii 20 years ago.

They have had the opportunity to go to other events all across the world, which includes places like California and Japan, and to world championships, which will be held in Houston and Detroit this year.

Mentor Glenn Lee has garnered many sponsors locally and nationally, helping lower some travel expenses for the students to get to these distant competitions.

“It’s fortunate enough that Mr. Lee is an excellent grant writer,” said Cody Miyataki, mentor and former student of the Waialua Robotics Teams. “Our team doesn’t have to worry too much about fundraising. We actually haven’t done a fundraiser in many years because we got so much grant money.”

Waialua is one of the most recognized robotics teams in the world, so it’s not surprising that covering a potential $50,000 cost for travel alone is not an issue.

Many teams do not get the opportunity to compete in these competitions, especially when the schools themselves do not contribute to funding.

“None of it is school-funded,” said Desirae Mendija, mentor of the Molokai High School robotics team. “We’re definitely relying on our grants and sponsors and donors. The school cannot give us any money, I guess, because it’s not in the curriculum. Because we land after school, we land outside the money basically.”

Most teams that are struggling with money will set up fundraisers or GoFundMe pages to help support the costs of shipping, traveling and the competition itself.

“Because there are so many robotics programs on the island and in the state, you kinda gotta compete for it,” Mendija said. “We gotta write multiple grants, find people that want to sponsor us, which is not easy here.”

One group has worked to significantly decrease the price for Hawaii teams to compete.

“Friends of Hawaii Robotics” is a non-profit organization that heads the robotics competition in Hawaii. They have been a key organization to all of Hawaii’s robotics competitions, but their biggest contributions have been to the FRC.

Each year, the organization works to find grants and sponsors so they can spread out the money to the schools and lower the costs for each team.

“Robotics is something I believe can change the world,” said Lenny Klompus, president of the Friends of Hawaii Robotics Organization. “These kids are amazing at what they do, and we want to reward them for doing something amazing.”

Hawaii is one of the most difficult regions in which to create a competition because resources and teams alike need to be brought into the state, creating transportation costs for both cargo and people.

As expensive as it is, with the worldwide growth in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for students, more sponsors have stepped in; McDonald's of Hawaii, Alaska Airlines, FedEx and Spectrum have all sponsored the tournament and hold events to showcase what these robotics teams can do.

For example, McDonald’s of Hawaii sponsors the donates one dollar to the Friends of Hawaii Robotics organization for each egg mcmuffin sold the week before the tournament, raising well over $30,000 each year. They have also sponsored world-championship bound teams with $5,000.

A robotics organization that keeps the cost down makes $10,000 more feasible. However, other factors create financial obstacles for teams located in Hawaii.

“Even with all the grants, our location has it so that we can’t get these expensive tools that other schools on the mainland have,” said Mendija. “Not only that but we still worry about having to buy more parts, backup parts, electronics…that stuff makes this more than just a $10,000 ride.”

“We even have to use our own money if we don’t have enough, and with VEX going on too, it just takes a lot of time and money to pull something like this off,” Mendija said.

Adding to the cost of competing, some students spend up to 300 hours in six weeks just to build this robot in time for the competition. Because of all the difficulties they have to overcome to compete, most of these kids will only get one shot to show off their robotics skills in a competition.

But the pay-off comes on competition day.

“Worth it would be getting those blue [award] banners,” Miyataki said.

“I personally see FIRST as the D-1 of robotics competitions,” Mendija said. “There’s just aspects to it that are more relevant to real-life situations. Just to be able to do it, I feel like it’s a big deal. And if we’re able to be successful with it, then it definitely allows more opportunities for scholarships for my students.”

Once the teams are there, the weeks of hard work and financial burden is forgotten in the excitement of the competition.

“When you get to the arena, and you put your robot on the field and watch it... It’s more exciting than any sports competition I’ve been to or any other competition besides worlds for VEX,” Santiago said. “At the arena, we don’t pay attention to the details about next year’s budget or if we go to worlds. We just enjoy the moment and play the game.”

The Stan Sheriff Center will host the 12th Annual FIRST in Hawaii Robotics Regional Competition from March 28-30. Admission is free.

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