My Visit to the 'Iolani School


by Jaymes Dec -

Aloha! During Spring Break I spent one week visiting The ‘Iolani School, a K-12 private school with over 1800 students in Honolulu, Hawaii. I was fortunate to be invited by their Head of School, Dr. Timothy Cottrell, to attend some classes, teach a few workshops, and meet with his talented technology team.

This school has an impressive technology program that supports their motto, “One Team”, which expresses the spirit of unselfish cooperation and mutual support among the entire school community. In this post, I want to share a little bit of what I saw and learned during my visit.

The Sullivan Center

The school recently opened the doors to The Sullivan Center for Innovation and Leadership, “a sustainably-designed 40,000 square foot, four-story facility dedicated to citizenship, applied technology, scientific discovery, and digital communication. Focusing on 21st century learning skills, the Center includes a fabrication lab, flexible project spaces, collaboration classrooms, a digital media lab, a rooftop garden, and a research lab.”

Outside the Sullivan Center

‘Iolani is eager to share their successes and challenges in designing and building this facility. They have an open door policy and host visitors from around the world. They are committed to sharing this center with their community and often host workshops and conferences for other local schools.

The Innovation Lab

Garage doors on the bottom floor of the Sullivan Center open up into their Innovation Lab, a world-class fabrication shop. They have all the standard fab lab tools including two large laser cutters, wood and metal shop tools, electronics prototyping tools, and even a water jet cutter.

This machine can slice through up to 12 inches of wood, plastic, marble, copper, glass, or steel! This giant chess set was cut out on the water jet.

The robotics team custom makes their own parts. While I was visiting, this team was on the Big Island, testing a lunar dust shield system at Mauna Kea volcano.

Another robotics project was initiated by a biology teacher and some students who built this remote control aquatic research vessel that samples water from a polluted canal that passes by the school.

The Professional Development Workshops

Iolani is dedicated to public-private partnership. While I was visiting, the public schools were on break. Iolani opened my workshops to teachers from all over the state for free, so the majority of the participants were from public schools.

I taught a workshop on basic circuits with copper tape and LEDs. They made interactive quiz boards that light up when the correct sensors are connected.


I taught a very brief introduction to collecting sensor data with the RedBoard from Sparkfun. It was a one hour workshop so the participants completed some of the basic Arduino examples.


I also taught two MaKeyMaKey and Scratch workshops, one on interactive storytelling and another on digital music instruments.

Attending Classes

In between the workshops, I had the pleasure to attend a few of the technology elective classes at the school. I sat in on Robotics, Robotics 2, Make It 101, Video Game Design, and Electronics.

The electives are small classes of 6-10 students. Iolani has a dedication to small classes with top-notch teachers. The team that runs their fabrication lab includes artists, designers, physicists, and electrical and mechanical engineers - bringing the real world into the classroom. While the technology facilities are world-class, it is clearly the teachers and the students that really make this program so special.

“Doc” Inouye is a longtime physics teacher at the school. He taught himself physical computing to start teaching a class called Make 101. In this Upper School class, students work in small teams on all sorts of creative technology projects. While I was there his students demonstrated a motorized bubble blower, a model of a garage door opener, and an alarm clock inside a 3D printed motorcycle helmet. All of the projects in this class were inventive and unique, quintessential maker-type projects. 

Doc also teaches Robotics, a middle school class where the students learn to build robots using the Arduino microcontroller, Vex Robotics parts, and a custom add-on shield that was designed in-house.


Martin Emde, the shield designer, was an Electrical Systems Engineer at Boeing before becoming a math, physics, and now an engineering teacher. His students in Robotics 2 were custom designing and building their own quadcopters. They designed the frames in Solid Works and then laser cut the parts. I was amazed that all of the quadcopters had such different designs. These were not cookie-cutter projects. They were almost ready for testing while I was there.



Martin’s middle school electronics class was learning about logic gates during my visit. It was a bit shocking to watch 7th and 8th grade students pick up the concepts of NAND, NOR, XOR, etc so quickly. They were really engaged with the lesson.

The Video Game Design teacher is Gabe Yanagihara, an artist and educator who has worked on popular video games and museum exhibits. His Middle school students were designing scrolling games in Scratch. Gabe loves to share his passion for video games with his students by deconstructing and recreating game mechanics from a Nintendo 64 system at the front of the classroom.

The classes at ‘Iolani are only 45 minutes (although this is changing next year), but they meet every day, and the students are able to pick up their projects quickly and make progress each period. The students were justifiably proud to share their projects with me. I really enjoyed visiting these classes and meeting the teachers and students.

The #iolanihackers

As I was wandering their school, I noticed many intricately designed and beautifully painted light up displays.


I learned that a group of students who call themselves the #iolanihackers made these displays for various events.

Led by a female freshman, they are “a small anonymous group that pulls pranks on the school to make people smile. It's based on the MIT hacks, where ethical, clean pranks would be pulled to create a quirky aspect of the school.”

They also design and build detailed interactive installations around the school. The elevator in the Sullivan Center serves as a constantly changing showpiece of their increasingly sophisticated skills. Check out this gallery of images from some of their past elevator installations.

While I was visiting, the elevator had been transformed into a tribute to the Beatles. When you walked into the elevator, Beatles songs would start playing, Abbey Road was projected onto the floor, the buttons were transformed into the controls for a Yellow Submarine, and there was a back-lit silhouette of the Fab Four jumping in the air.

The #iolanihackers even completely redesigned the faculty lounge at the school.

I highly recommend watching this short video documentation of the design and installation. 

Third Grade Workshops

One of the highlights of my visit came on the final day, when I taught two workshops for 66 third grade students. Hosted by Lower School technology teacher, Matt Dillon in his Lower School Fab Lab, each student made their own “Gami-bot”, a small robot made by folding a business card. I made a larger template for the kids to make it easier for them to fold. The students were really excited to get started after an introduction to the activity. We gave each student a print out of the instructions. There were a lot of peers helping peers as they folded their robots and added vibrating motors and batteries. When they were done, we let them play with their creations before we had two excellent wrap-up discussions about following instructions and how they might make improvements to their robots.

Conversation with the Head of School

At one point during the week, I sat down for a few minutes to chat with Head of School, Dr. Tim Cottrell, about the school and some of their successes and challenges.

He reiterated their dedication to working with the local public schools to share resources and opportunities. Their students and teachers often collaborate with the public schools on projects and events. ‘Iolani strives to serve as an example of how private and public schools can work together to make both stronger.

One interesting lesson that they learned from building the Sullivan Center was that University style common areas don’t necessarily map well to K-12 schools. Inspired by the at Stanford, they included some large open spaces in the building with concrete floors and all the furniture on wheels so that they can quickly reconfigure the spaces. While I was there, these spaces were being used to display student work, host conferences, and host a Buddhist Monk who spent the week giving lectures, meditating, and building a beautiful Mandala.

However, Dr. Cottrell lamented that the students were not able to use the space as much as he would like. He noted that in a university setting, students can often set up a work area and spend the whole day there. But in K-12, the students are highly scheduled and can’t really spend several hours working in their own dedicated space.

With over 24 electives to choose from, plus award winning art and music programs, the students at ‘Iolani have a lot of options to explore their interests. Some teachers might fear that the newer technology electives will pull students away from their more established music and arts programs. I hope that they find more ways to integrate their technology resources into those other subject areas.

As an inspirational story about his future hopes for his students, Dr. Cottrell shared a project that a recent alum had gifted him.

The project was a wheel that carried metal balls up to a ramp where they rolled down and were picked up by the wheel again. 

This student is now a freshman at Olin College. He recently sent Dr. Cottrell a video of a mesmerizing engineering art project.

Dr. Cottrell noted that had this student had the opportunities and resources to explore these technologies when he was a freshman, he could have made projects like this when he was at ‘Iolani.

Indeed, I’m really looking forward to seeing the future projects by the middle school students building quadcopters, the students in Make It 101, and especially the #iolanihackers.

I have to thank the staff at ‘Iolani for their hospitality and kindness. The administration and technology team went out of their way to make me feel like a member of the ‘Iolani community. Thank you so much for everything, Karen, Mike, Jackie, and Patti!




Christa Flores's picture

Thanks for this post Jaymes. I am so happy to see that they have a hackers group that make life more inspiring on campus. I have been trying to promote a group of pranksters on my campus to do similar Smart Pranks as well, with little avail. 

Jaymes Dec's picture

Thanks, Christa! I want to do a follow up post just on the #iolanihackers. I think we can all learn a lot from these students and their advisor. 

Heather Pang's picture

So much great stuff here. I am amazed at the facilities they have, and excited by the way the work seems to be starting to integrate into a variety of parts of the school. 

Mark Schreiber's picture

Great stuff Jaymes!  I have heard of the Lolani school so it was great to see so many pictures and see thier projects.  Thanks for sharing I hope to visit them one day too.


Michael Fricano II's picture

Thanks for the great post about 'Iolani School, Jaymes! It was a pleasure having you visit! A follow up to the #IolaniHackers is a great idea! See you D3!

Sean Wilson's picture

Great work Martin and Gilson, miss you guys!