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Maui High senior KeithJan Quilal-lan (from left), sophomore Norman Montehermoso and junior Cailyn Omuro focus on shooting a ball during the finals match of the FRC Hawaii Regionals competition on Friday at the University of Hawaii Stan Sheriff Center on Oahu. Photos courtesy of Keith Imada

With just seconds left in the final match of the FRC Hawaii Regional competition, Maui High School’s robotics team earned enough points to take the lead and hang on for the victory.

Blue Thunder’s regional robotics championship crown over the weekend at the University of Hawaii Stan Sheriff Stadium qualified them for the world event FIRST Robotics Championship in Houston, Texas, set for April 20-23.

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, the regional event on Oahu was held in person and the Maui High team looks forward to traveling again to the Mainland.

“It was a great experience working with the kids after a year off and not really knowing at the beginning of the season if we would really even have a season, so to actually see it all the way through was pretty special,” robotics / technology teacher Keith Imada said Monday.

Participants design, construct and program robots to perform certain tasks to earn points and rankings, such as driving, climbing or shooting hoops, which are put to the test during rounds of competition with teams from across the county, state and world.

Maui High sophomore Isabella Romero works on the robot’s intake arm system in between a match while junior Marco Esparza works on the lift system in the back during the FRC Hawaii Regionals competition at the University of Hawaii Stan Sheriff Center on Friday.

The Lunas from Lahainaluna High School and Molokai Robotics from Molokai High School made it to the regional semifinals.

“We didn’t perform as well as we had wanted to during this regional, but we still had a blast,” Molokai Robotics posted on its Facebook page. “We are also so grateful to have met and made friends with so many different teams!”

Blue Thunder has traveled to a world championship three other times since 2008 when the robotics program began – twice on wild cards and one as the 2009 regional champions.

During the 2019 regional championship, Blue Thunder just fell short in the finals and finished as the runner-up. This year, the 29-member squad made a comeback, winning two of the three matches to take home gold.

“I loved it because the matches were tight,” Imada said. “In the third match, we were pretty well-prepared, so it was exciting. The team was amazing, the kids worked together really well. ”

Neill Nakamura, who’s been a Blue Thunder mentor for 15 years, won the Woodie Flowers Award this weekend, an honor founded in 1996 to recognize mentors within the FIRST Robotics Competition who “Lead, inspire and empower using excellent communication skills” and to honor Dr. Woodie Flowers, who recently passed away.

The robotics team wrote a nomination letter that inspired Nakamura’s selection.

“The main thing that I enjoy is watching kids move towards being a more successful human being, in teaching them rewards and consequences for decisions,” Nakamura said. “We try to develop the person and in that I believe comes an excellent product, which would be our robot. If we do what we’re supposed to do properly and effectively, then the product becomes proper and effective, and I think this year’s robot is proof of that. ”

And throughout the process and time spent in class, students learn how to work together as a team, he added.

“We can’t do it alone as builders, we can’t do it alone as programmers, or even the PR and marketing department – we can’t do it alone,” he said. “So the most amazing thing for me is to see them gel as a team and over this past weekend, it was pretty amazing. They gelled. I can’t explain it, it was just magic. ”

Other robotics teams from Hawaii middle and elementary schools have advanced to world championships of their own, such as the VEX Robotics World Championship slated for May 3 to 12 in Dallas.

According to a news release, 32 of 77 teams qualified by finishing top in their divisions at the Hawaii VEX Robotics State Championships held back in February and March, including 29 teams from Oahu, one from Hawaii island and two from Maui – both Pukalani STEM Imagineers Robotics teams from Pukalani Elementary School.

Elementary, middle and high school robotics teams participate in tournaments held year-round at the regional, state and national levels. There are about 20,000 teams from 45 countries participating in VEX tournaments, according to the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium, which oversees the Hawaii VEX Robotics Competitions with funding through the University of Hawaii Foundation.

“VEX Robotics is an educational robotics program that inspires students to excel in STEM principles while encouraging creativity, teamwork, leadership and problem solving among groups,” according to a news release. “Robotics competitions foster these skills and prepare students to become future innovators as well as increase their interest in pursuing STEM careers.”

To contact schools about donating to a robotics team as they fundraise for travel and participation fees, visit mauihigh.org or pukalanies.k12.hi.us.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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