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Building robots: from pieces to partnerships

Māori-speaking rangatahi (youth) from across Te Moana-a-Toi (Bay of Plenty) have been competing with each other in creating and controlling robots.

Girl fixing her robot while another team practices controlling theirs

Teams from six schools have been taking part in a regional scrimmage in Whakatāne to see which of their robots would display the best skills in the shortest time, as part of a new Māori robotics programme called RoboPā.

RoboPā is specifically for rangatahi at Māori-speaking kura (schools), where the programme is delivered mostly in the Māori language, with Māori values and within Māori ways of thinking and doing. 

It is run by the Tokorau Institute for Indigenous Innovation (TIFII) at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi with support from Kiwibots. Chris Hamling, Kiwibots National Manager, says that this is the first Māori-driven robotics programme of its kind.

John Clayton, Chair of TIFII, says, “We know that digital technology is the future. We want Māori to be part of that, so that we can start to close the gap.”

Team with their robot

The scrimmage in Whakatāne ran across two days, which included a noho (overnight stay).

Thomas Mitai, RoboPā Kaiwhakahaere at TIFII, says that whakawhanaungatanga (forging relationships) forms the heart of the programme, where the noho and shared kai (meals) serves to connect local youth with each other and create lifelong ties.

“The mechanism is robotics, but really it’s about opening up future opportunities. For example, some rangatahi never leave Whakatāne and we want them to see they can be innovative together right here, rather than feel like they ‘miss out’ just because they choose not to move to the cities.”

Practicing for the scrimmage

Students Mercedes, 12, Hinemoana, 11, Ripeka, 11, and Lisa-Ray, 13, from Te Whata Tau ō Pōtaūaki in Kawerau say that all the school teams had to design and build their robots from scratch ahead of the scrimmage.

The students started with a printout of the base of the robot and its basic framework, which they had to draw their own designs on, and then built their designs from a Kiwibots VEX Robotics kit. Each participating school was gifted this kit by Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi so that the rangatahi can continue to explore robotics after finishing RoboPā.

“When we first tested our robot we realised that the arms were too heavy and making it tip over when they picked something up. So we had to redesign and rebuild the arms to make them lighter,” says Lisa-Ray.

Ripeka adds, “I really enjoyed doing all of this: from designing it to controlling it at the competition. It’s been challenging but really cool.”

Mercedes, Hinemoana, Ripeka, Lisa-Ray

The team from Ashbrook Papatewhai School in Opotiki faced a similar challenge:

“We came full circle,” says Te Aniwa, 12. “We changed the arms to try and improve them but then realised our original design actually worked better so changed it back.”

Jade McCorkindale, kaiako at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o te Orini ki Ngāti Awa, says that RoboPā has created opportunities her students wouldn’t have got otherwise, as their school only includes learnings underpinned by Māori culture thus has to exclude non-Māori robotics.

“This has really opened their eyes to new things like mechanics and engineering. I love how it’s all maths: from figuring out the angles of the lifting actions, to building the gripping parts of the arm.

Student Kuraroa, 12, adds, “My favourite part has been getting to know all the students – I've made lots of new friends.”

Team with their robot, ready to compete

The final scrimmage is an alliance scrimmage in which two competing teams must work together to gain the highest score possible within a limited timeframe, explains Rochelle Rapana, RoboPā Kaiwhakataki Kaupapa at TIFII.

The teams have just two minutes to move as many objects as possible from one side of the rink into small compartments on the other side, while facing challenges such as crossing a seesaw bridge.

“Ultimately, it comes down to how well the teams work together as an alliance, the robot design, the driver control and of course how nimbly the robot can manoeuvre,” Rochelle says.

Practicing for the scrimmage

The winners this year are Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Waioweka, whose prize was a different type of VEX robotics kit donated by Kiwibots and New World Whakatāne.

Rapua Timoti, kaiako at TKKM o Waioweka, says, “We’ve started with a karakia every day, labelled all the different parts of the robots in te reo Māori, and I read the [English] instructions out to the students in Māori.

“Kua kitea e mātou i ngā pūkena me te hikaka kei roto i ō mātou tamariki. Ko te mea nui hoki ko te reo e kawe ana ngā nekehanga.”

Robot up close

Visit the RoboPā website

About the Project

RoboPā logoRoboPā is run by the Tokorau Institute for Indigenous Innovation at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi with support from Kiwibots, New World Whakatāne and the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.

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Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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