Lahainaluna robotics team heading to World Championships

Mentor: ‘Everything came together’ with well-designed robot

Lahainaluna High School Robotics Team member and leader Anjanette “Angie” Aveno (center) poses with two unidentified alliance team members from other schools during regional competition earlier this month in California. Lahainaluna High School Robotics Team photos

For the first time since Lahainaluna High School began participating in FIRST robotics seven years ago, the Lunas are heading to a World Championship competition in Texas next month.

“They’re really happy their hard work paid off,” said lead mentor Dennis Sasai, noting the team is made up of 20 members, almost half of which are part-time. But that means some students pull double duty in the group.

The students, freshmen through seniors, were ecstatic when they placed second out of 66 teams in a FIRST San Diego Regional competition on March 10 in the San Diego suburb of Del Mar, Sasai said. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Reaching the finals in San Diego and having an abundance of teams already qualified for the World competition prior to the San Diego event, Lahainaluna was able to earn a spot for the Houston World event, which hosts 400 teams.

Sasai said he and his team were not prepared for the berth because, historically, they never qualified for the next level.

But, this time, “everything came together,” he said.

Team member Jerico Olpindo loads the school robot during the FIRST San Diego Regional Competition held earlier this month in the San Diego suburb of Del Mar. The team, with an alliance, placed second out of 66 teams at the competition. Now, the Lunas head to a world competition in Houston in April.

Now, the team must bear extra travel costs. Sasai estimated it will cost around $20,000 to send 10 full-time team members and three mentors to the World Championships, scheduled for April 18-21. The team is working on various fundraisers, which will be announced later. Donations are welcome. More information may be obtained via email from Sasai at His phone number is 281-4852.

Sasai is the Maui District resource teacher for Career and Technical Education for the state Department of Education. He is a former Lahainaluna teacher.

The World Championships will cap a progressive year for the Lahainaluna Robotics Team 3882. The team branched out and tried new events at the San Diego regional and won a Judges’ Award at the competition.

The award was for the team’s unique efforts, performances or dynamics. The FIRST officials added that Lahainaluna “delivered big with a well-designed robot while still maintaining focus on introducing and inspiring others with little or no previous knowledge of robotics.”

The award came in part to the team’s outreach into the community over several years, Sasai said.

Luna team members have mentored students in robotics at Princess Nahienaena Elementary School, and they’ve hosted a VEX Robotics competition for other schools.

“We wanted to do that for the kids on the west side,” Sasai said.

Maui teams often need to travel long distances for robotics competitions, and the Luna team members wanted to make an event available closer to home, he said.

“Parents and students, they are really happy that the parents can come,” Sasai said of the VEX competition.

The event also enhanced pride at the West Maui schools and in the community, he said.

West Maui is not just a place for tourists and hotels, he said.

“People don’t realize we have STEM education at Lahainaluna, too,” he said. “People don’t equate that with Lahaina.”

The team’s activities are all in addition to the work of putting together the Lunas’ 33-by-28-inch robot that weighs 120 pounds.

The students had six weeks from January to February to put the robot together, Sasai said. They worked on weekends and on weekdays and spent hours working on their robot after school.

The students are in charge of building the robot and programming it to do tasks to compete.

This year’s game is called “First Power Up.” It involves an arcadelike game in which students use the robots to score points by placing cubes onto various scales and switches.

For now, Lahainaluna High School is the only Maui County team headed to the world competition in Houston, Sasai said.

He noted that other Maui County teams, including Lahainaluna, will compete in a regional event in Honolulu this week, Thursday through Saturday. During the competition, other Hawaii teams could qualify for the world competition.

Lahainaluna’s team leaders are seniors Kylee Dean-Kobatake and Jenna Swangel and sophomores Anjanette Aveno and Eddymar Cabading.

Lahainaluna began working with robotics in 2008, under the VEX program, Sasai said. In 2011, the school began tackling a higher level of robotics and entered FIRST competitions.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at