Despite the chaos of COVID, Micronesia’s high school robotics rolled forward in 2019-20.
This was a school year of expansion and cultivation for the Habele Robo League. Students in Kosrae were equipped and trained. Schools in Yap, Chuuk and Pohnpei expanded mastery of robotics, deepening capacity and ownership.
Expansion – Extending Robotics to Kosrae State
Expansion into Kosrae made the Robo League a truly nationwide program, serving students across all four Micronesian States.
Introduction of robotics to Kosrae was met with high enthusiasm by students, educators and government officials, some of whom had tracked the robotics league’s progress in other FSM states, and have been waiting for the opportunity to participate.
The Kosrae Robo League presents unique challenges, as the majority of high school students on-island attend one central high school (Kosrae High School). This requires creating multiple, competitive clubs within Kosrae High School. By contrast, in the other three FSM states, inter-school competition is a crucial component of the Robo League, and one that generates high levels of ownership and engagement.
Habele continues to refine the Robo League model to accommodate clubs in a wide variety of situations. Provisioning four or more clubs in a single school required special attention and training, but equipped them for dynamic competition within their own school and other states in the future.
Kosrae High School was provided with enough robotics equipment to form up to six clubs from their large student body. Students and staff were also provided extensive hands-on technical training. As the school year progressed the Kosrae clubs made it clear: they were eager to demonstrate mastery of the technology.
Despite a Spring semester disrupted by pandemic concerns, Kosrae High School successfully held their first-ever Kosrae Robo Day. Even in uncertain times, the event generated interest and engagement from staff and students. Going forward, the hope is to build community engagement, as people feel more comfortable gathering in large groups. Staff and student surveys noted that the Kosrae Robo Clubs are eager to remain part of the League, and to deepen students’ understanding of the material.
Intra-Micronesia communication remains a challenge, as Kosrae is the last state to remain unconnected to the undersea fiber optic cable. Internet access is extremely limited especially for staff not immediately in school offices, an issue that grew as teachers and administrators practiced social distancing away from campus. In some cases, communication is limited to traditional mail via the FSMPS / USPS, which creates a lag in updates from Kosrae, compared to Robo Clubs from the three other FSM states. Fostering school-to-school, and state-to-state, communication in other states has been a key part of improving those teams ownership and performance. It is encouraging to see the commitment to STEM instruction from Kosrae educators, despite these challenges.
Cultivation – Taking Incumbent Schools to the Next Level
Following a very successful introductory year in 2018, participants in the Pohnpei Robo League were on a solid trajectory to build on the momentum. In addition to the previous participants, Madolenihmw High School was equipped to begin their own Robo Club. This rural high school had heard about the robotics competition, and was eager to be involved.
Habele conducted extensive meetings with participating schools and key staff, assessing interest, engagement, and ownership of the Pohnpei Robo League. Interest remained high, and high engagement clubs provided support and an example for clubs with teachers newer to the subject. Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School (OLMCHS) continued to serve as on-island leader for the Robo League. OLMCHS organized and hosted all multi-school events, communicated with participating clubs, and worked to build community interest in the Robo League.
Needs assessment visits with schools like OLMCHS in the fall provided insights that would become extremely valuable once schools were impacted by COVID-19 protocols. Particularly, the sluggish wireless networks and internet connections that independent schools were attempting to use for remote training and instruction.
Chuuk likewise began the 2019-2020 school year with a lot of momentum. Their 2018 Robo Day was one of the best conducted in the FSM, with significant school and community involvement, and high levels of ownership. With a highly successful Robo Day under their belts, clubs were very motivated to increase competitiveness.
Students in Chuuk were the most clear and knowledgeable source of information about needed equipment, which Habele provisioned. It was clear: Robo progress in Chuuk was fundamentally student-driven.
Additionally, Habele formed a relationship with Akoyikoyi School, a K-8 charter school serving low income students in Chuuk. This school indicated in interest in pre-training for students who intend to pursue robotics when they matriculate to high school.
Yap State -where the league began in 2011- continued to lead the way for the Robo League. High levels of ownership and student leadership provide an exemplary template for developing clubs in other states. One practical example of this leadership is in game development. As with last year, students in Yap developed their own game for the final Robo Day competition, and offered to it to participants in other states to use. Yapese students and educators service as peer-to-peer trainers has enriched and grown the cooperative nature of the Robo League between states.
The use of peer-to-peer instruction adds complexity to the program, but has proven educationally effective. It also advances the Robo League’s secondary goals of increasing student ownership, and growing a unified sense of Micronesian identity.
All seven high schools across Yap State are enthusiastic participants in the Robo League. Because of internet and phone access, communication with the high schools on Ulithi and Woleai Atolls remains a challenge. Despite this information lag, Habele has still been able to provision schools with necessary equipment and materials to successfully compete.
Adaptation – School-by-School Problem Solving Amidst COVID
As Robo Clubs across the FSM geared up for the home stretch towards 2020 Robo Day, global pandemic sent shockwaves through the education community. Some schools closed and sent students to their home islands. Other schools closed temporarily, and hoped for word from State Departments of Education that they could reopen and finish the semester.
Expatriate teachers went off island, and were unable to return. Many local teachers and staff were off-island for training and similarly found themselves unable to return. For schools that did re-open to finish the semester, the focus was moving towards graduation with a focus on core subjects.
In three of the FSM states, the traditional large public gathering for statewide Robo Day was not an option. Kosrae was the exception, and held an in-person Robo Day before ending their semester early. Habele worked with partner schools in Yap, Chuuk and Pohnpei to develop a means by which students could remotely compete, with or without their school being opened.
Using versions of the competition game developed by the Student Leadership Team in Yap, Habele made videos carefully instructing students in how to create their own “socially distanced” game board, and laid out each step of the competition process. From home or school, a student could create their own game board using very simple materials (tape, toilet paper, and a stick), run their robot through a series of challenges, and have someone film them on a cell phone for time. Videos of each challenge had to be uploaded to Facebook, and tagged @habelerobo to be included in the competition.
These steps were communicated to staff at participating schools directly and through our partner schools. One of the key messages was that no staff resources were needed for students to participate. Students in the Robo Clubs simply needed access to the robotics equipment, and could follow the simple instructions to compete.
Our partner schools and state lead schools worked hard to reinforce the ease of participation, and the opportunity for senior students to have a final Robo Day challenge before graduation, while complying with all safety protocols required by each state. For schools still in session, and where local mandates would allow, students could still have their Robo Day.
Pohnpei held a hybrid Robo Day competition, with only private schools participating, as leadership at the public schools had either shut down, or were focused on closing out the school year as quickly as possible. The Robo Clubs that did participate submitted videos of the challenges, and even held a socially-distanced award ceremony for the students, who were extremely proud of having participated.
Yap State also participated in the 2020 Robo Day with private and public schools competing through the submission of videos. Habele is grateful to the Yap State Department of Education for its ongoing commitment to the Robo League. Participation was significantly lower than in past years, as travel to the Outer Islands was in flux, and some schools had shut down, or had key staff trapped off island.
Despite all the enthusiasm in Chuuk leading towards Robo Day, pandemic uncertainty severely limited participation in a remote Robo Day. Xavier High School, our key partner school in Chuuk, shut down, and sent non-Chuukese staff and off-island students home. For on-island students that wanted to participate, and had equipment, Xavier assigned community service projects that would have usually happened after the school year. Public schools, and other private schools shut down, attempting to comply with evolving state mandates. Even as the 2020-21 school year began, many schools in Chuuk remained in a holding pattern, trying to discern how they could comply with state government health and safety mandates.
A hopeful element for the Chuuk Robo League is the relationship being cultivated with Akoyikoyi School, a K-8 charter school serving low income students. Although a middle school, Akoyikoyi proactively sought for a way to engage students in pre-Robo League STEM training. Engaged staff searching out opportunities for students, despite ongoing uncertainty, can serve as a motivating factor for other schools on-island.
Moving Forward – Targeted Support to Support Robotics and STEM Instruction
To make the best use of its new robotics gear, a high-capacity wireless network on the Akoyikoyi campus was also provided by Habele. Like many other schools across the FSM, several of Akoyikoyi STEM teachers were off-island when the quarantine began. The improved network makes remote learning and distance instruction a practical reality for those educators and their students.
Wireless networks are a key issue for the Robo League going forward. Schools across the FSM are moving to alternate schedules, that – as they are able – incorporate online learning and remote instruction. Remote robotics instruction will become a factor throughout the upcoming school year, and the majority of schools (particularly private schools) do not have the wireless capacity to engage remotely.
Winning students, Pohnpei Robo Day 2020
Habele laid a foundation for overcoming this challenge by equipping a partner school in Yap, Chuuk and Pohnpei with high quality wireless networks. Going forward, each of these schools can function as a central location for staff and students from all participating clubs to gather for remote trainings. Though Kosrae remains unconnected to the undersea cable, Habele is investigating solutions to support remote learning for the Robo Clubs there.
These “connected campuses” allow all indoor and outdoor areas quick access to a robust Wireless Area Network, radically improving the small, wired computer labs, which were further limited in their utility due to social distancing concerns. Integrated servers allow robotics instructional and reference materials to be accessed by all staff and students. With many of the most credentialed STEM teachers unable to return to the FSM, these network projects not only support robotics, but science and math learning of all types.