Thursday, March 07, 2019

First-year Waialae Elementary PCS robotics team reaches state finals

“I think it taught the children you really can do anything you put your mind to.”

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This past weekend, the Waialae Elementary Public Charter School’s robotics team reached a milestone they never expected to accomplish.

The Waialae Wolves, made up of 16 students from third through fifth grades, made it to the finals of the VEX IQ Challenge state championship, placed 13th overall, and walked away with the Energy Award, which recognizes their inspirational spirit.

It’s an incredible achievement for a team that’s been in existence for less than a year.

“We’re super honored, super excited to have this opportunity in our first year,” said third-grade teacher and team leader Raechelle Villanueva.

Thanks to the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium’s Art Kimura, Chief Educational Officer John Constantinou acquired three robots for the school with a memorandum of understanding that his students would enter at least one competition. He just needed someone to guide them.

Despite a full schedule as a teacher, contract negotiations team member, and HSTA school-level leader and current head faculty representative, Villanueva stepped in. “I thought okay, why don’t I give it a try in my third-grade classroom and clear out some furniture and some other things that had kind of been collecting dust, and so I signed the paperwork,” she said.

She quickly learned building a competitive robotics team from scratch wasn’t easy.

“We didn’t realize that we would be competing with and against middle school students, and so it’s a quite competitive league and we, on our first meetup, were blown away. We had no idea what to expect. We barely scored a point. To be frank, it was quite embarrassing,” she said.

Fortunately, teams from Sacred Hearts Academy and Mid-Pacific Institute took them under their wing.

“They mentored us, they worked with us, and slowly but surely, each meetup we went to, our score steadily increased, and the kids were able to handle the pressure,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that open spirit and that collaborative spirit of the VEX Robotics program, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Villanueva says the growth in her students isn’t limited to the competition field.

“We shared at a morning assembly in front of the whole school, and a lot of them said that it was more than robotics. It taught them about life. It made them a better person and that maybe one day this could lead into a career,” she said. “Maybe you’re not good at traditional school, but that doesn’t determine your success or predict where you’re going to go in life, and really just opening up that door for many of these kids I think is what programs like robotics can do for these children.”

Third-grader Elodie Charron said, “I learned to like take it slow but not too slow and not too fast. I like weave through the bars without crashing, and I learned teamwork, because before, I didn’t really know teamwork and I didn’t know that much people, but now I get to go with other people and communicate, so I’m not that shy anymore of other people so I’m kind of brave now that I’m in VEX Robotics.”

Villanueva says she doesn’t do it alone. Support from three parent volunteers, one of whom is her husband, is key to the team’s success. Her daughter is also on the team, making robotics a family affair.

It’s been a wild journey with lessons learned by all.

“We’re Hawaii’s first public charter school and our charter was founded on our vision elements, and one of them is to be a self-confident risk-taker, and for me to get children to want to do that, it’s one thing to say it and another to live it,” Villanueva said. “A lot of times as teachers, we feel like we need to know everything and I think by me taking that humble, honest, open approach with the children, like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing either and it’s okay,’ but the main thing is that you don’t give up. As long as you can say you gave it your best, there’s nothing more that we can ask, and I think just modeling that behavior builds the trust with the children and motivates them to also rise to the top.

“I think it taught the children you really can do anything you put your mind to. You really can,” she said.