Future plans built with Legos

November 7, 2010

KAHULUI – Afternoons of fun with robotics and Legos have turned into a source of inspiration for a future in science and technology for Molokai youngsters.

A contingent of 40 Molokai students ages 9 to 14 participated in the state’s largest district contest Saturday for Hawaii’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League.

Altogether, nearly 300 Maui students in 27 teams from across the county competed in a daylong competition aimed at introducing them to the fun and excitement of science and technology while building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.

That was a mission accomplished with a team of six boys, ages 10, 11 and 12, who call themselves the Kaunakakai Pharmers.

Kaunakakai Pharmers was one of seven teams that rose to the top at the district contest held on the Maui High School campus. They will go on to represent Maui County at the Hawaii FIRST Lego League state championship set for Dec. 11 on Oahu. A separate team of girls called Molokai Gleeks also earned a berth at the state contest and took home the Teamwork award in Saturday’s competition.

This year’s event was called the “Body Forward Challenge,” an initiative that encouraged participants to explore the cutting-edge world of biomedical engineering while finding ways to help people lead healthier lives. Teams of no more than 15 members were judged on teamwork, a robot design and robot performance (created through a kit provided by the contest coordinators) and a project that specifically identified a health care problem in the community and provided viable solutions.

The Pharmers took on the field of pharmacy, pharmacist error and patient compliance with prescription medication. According to the Pharmers’ coach Heidi Jenkins, the Pharmers’ project concept will be used by Napuu Wai, a Native Hawaiian health care group that has agreed to use the students’ ideas in its management of 50 clients who show the most noncompliance with prescription drugs.

Based on their own research, the Pharmers created and produced a color brochure featuring tips on prescription safety. About 200 of the brochures have been distributed on Molokai.

The Pharmers also came up with a proposal to develop a health card featuring a “Prescription Alarming Chip” that, when swiped, would send text and voice-mail reminders to patients about the proper usage of their prescribed medications. The patients would also receive the same messages through e-mail.

Napuu Wai staff, according to Jenkins, will manually do what the Pharmers’ proposed health card would do and track whether follow-up instructions through cell phone texts, voice mail and e-mail messages, improve patient compliance with medications.

If they do, Jenkins said, HMSA has indicated interest in applying for grants from the National Institutes of Health to fund the health cards as proposed by the Pharmers. The team is hoping to seek the patent on such a card, should it be developed.

The Pharmers team:

* Alan Maroto, a 12-year-old who spoke no English when he moved from the Philippines three years ago. “I was just nodding my head, yes, yes and yes,” Maroto said with a smile as he explained how he used to connect with his fellow Pharmers in the initial stages of their project.

In the end, Maroto’s English-speaking skills had improved so much that his teammates voted him to be the presenter on a video they produced on their project.

“I feel good about it,” he said.

* Awa Yerhot, the team captain who nearly quit this year’s contest. “You just have to believe you can do it and when someone is depending on you, you have to stick to it,” Yerhot said in summarizing his most memorable lesson after 600 hours of project work.

* Cameron Tancayo, a Cub Scout who hopes one day to be an Air Force captain and engineer. “We’re actually helping our community . . . that’s what I want to do.”

* Erik Svetin, the team co-captain, whose favorite subjects are math and social studies. Svetin dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, but if that doesn’t work out, he hopes to put his math skills into play as a statistician for a major-league baseball team. “Whether you win or lose, it’s what you do with a challenge and for your team that’s important,” he said.

* Isaiah Lightfoot-Lani, whose parents never went to college but who would like to go himself so that he can one day work as a mechanical engineer. “Anybody’s capable of doing what they want to do. . . . I want to finish high school, go to college and take this even further,” he said of his interest in the engineering field.

* Kai Kalani, the son of teachers who has no doubt he’s going to college with the goal of becoming a civil engineer, possibly focusing on utilities such as water systems. For Kalani, the project left him with a better appreciation of his teammates and relationships with them. “We were friends already. We became even stronger friends.”

Through their research, the Pharmers learned that 7,000 people die each year in the United States because of errors in their medical prescriptions.

Another 120,000 Americans die annually due to noncompliance with their medication regimens. “That’s twice the number of people killed in auto accidents,” Svetin said.

Svetin’s mother, Kimberly Svetin, a 1987 Molokai High School student body president and valedictorian, served as the team’s “Robo-Mom,” supporting them with both her skills and enthusiasm in the field of pharmacy and her role as head of Molokai Drugs.

“It makes me want to cry,” Svetin said, looking at the Pharmers and their desire to seek careers in science and engineering. “I think we all want our kids to grow up and do even better than us,” she said.

Svetin said she was one of six of 96 students in her high school class who went on to earn four-year degrees. She’d like to see the number of students seeking associate and bachelor’s degrees increase in her son’s class. “They could do so much more.”

Jenkins said that, as a teacher, she is encouraged by Lego League’s promotion of science, technology, engineering and math and the support from the Maui Economic Development Board. Many of the Molokai students, Jenkins said, initially participated so that they could engage in after-school activities with robots and Legos.

“Now there’s more to that. . . . I see their minds are starting to think of new inventions and options of careers that are not even invented yet,” Jenkins said. “It’s so exciting.”

The Molokai students’ trip to Maui included a day of visits at the Maui Research & Technology Park and with engineers at Goodfellow Bros. Inc.

The costs for all the students from Molokai to participate in the program amounted to $20,000 and were covered through a 21st Century Learning Center grant, financial support from MEDB and business donations.

* Claudine San Nicolas can be reached at claudine@mauinews.com.