Maui High teacher takes top award for robotics educators

Keith Imada credits students, qualifies as finalist for national award

Maui High School teacher Keith Imada receives the Woodie Flowers Finalist Award on Wednesday during the 11th annual FIRST in Hawaii Robotics Competition at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu. The regional award, voted on by students, recognizes an outstanding mentor and enters Imada into competition for the national award. Photo courtesy Kiman Wong, Friends of Hawaii Robotics

Longtime Maui High School robotics teacher Keith Imada took home the top award for educators over the weekend at the 11th annual FIRST in Hawaii Robotics Competition at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu.

It is the first time Imada has won the Woodie Flowers Finalist Award, which is presented to an outstanding mentor who “best leads, inspires, teaches and empowers their team using excellent communication skills,” according to tournament officials.

The award recipient is nominated by students, and Imada is now a finalist for the national award, which goes to the top mentor during April’s World Championships in Houston. The winner is chosen from a pool of all of this year’s regional and district recipients as well as previous renominations.

“It was a total surprise,” Imada said Monday. “It’s an honor that my students put my name in and the things they wrote, but it’s really all about the students and the teams we’ve had. I texted the students back that they’re the ones who made the award.”

A panel of judges also gave Maui High’s Blue Thunder the Judges Award, in recognition of the team’s “unique efforts, performance or dynamics,” officials said. In addition, Lahainaluna was honored for Excellence in Engineering, which “celebrates an elegant and advantageous machine feature in robot design.”

Lahainaluna High School’s robotics team prepares its robot during last weekend’s 11th annual FIRST in Hawaii Robotics Competition at the Stan Sheriff Center.

Imada and fellow teacher Neill Nakamura have been leading Maui High teams to regional competitions for the past 11 years. A win at the tournament punches its ticket to the world championship, but the team came up short at Hawaii’s two-day tournament that ended Saturday.

“I felt really good. We were just on the wrong side of the bracket this time,” Imada said.

The team lost to powerhouse and eventual winner Waialua High School in the semifinals. The Lunas finished slightly ahead of Maui High, but have already qualified for next month’s finals. St. Anthony Schools also was among the 37 teams that competed at the Hawaii regional.

“I felt we were competitive with everybody else,” Imada said. “If we were on the other side of the bracket, maybe we could’ve made it to the finals and made a run. Every year is different, and this year it’s not so much about the robot. It still has to be solid and do certain things, but it’s about the driving and strategy.

“It’s like in sports, the person still has to make the 3-pointer at the end of the game.”

Maui High will compete in the Central Valley Regional from April 6 to 8 in Fresno, Calif., for a last-ditch effort to qualify for the top competition. It will be one of 48 teams vying for a spot.

“I feel like our chances are good,” Imada said. “I’m kind of hoping if we don’t win it at the end, there will be wild-card spots that Lahainaluna got and hopefully we can qualify for a spot that way too.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at