County robotics teams earn first-time berths at worlds

Maui Waena and Kamehameha Maui headed to contest in Louisville, Ky.

Braeden Asuncion (from right) and Alaina Hook of Maui Waena Intermediate School try to score points with their robot during the 2020 Hawaii State Middle School VEX IQ Championship at Kamehameha Schools Maui on Saturday. Braeden and Alaina won the Robot Skills Champion award, qualifying them for the world championships in Kentucky. Photos courtesy of Keith Imada

Two middle school robotics programs relatively new to the scene are headed to the world championships for the first time after a strong finish at the state competition Saturday.

Maui Waena Intermediate School, now in its third year of VEX IQ robotics competition, qualified for the world championships after taking first in the Robot Skills challenge, while Kamehameha Schools Maui, now in its second year, teamed up with the Mililani Masters to finish second in the finalist rankings and earn a spot at worlds in Louisville, Ky., on April 26-28.

“It feels good to know all those long hours finally paid off for them,” said Kamehameha coach Dutch Tanaka-Akana, whose school hosted the 2020 Hawaii State Middle School VEX IQ Championship on Friday and Saturday.

About 40 of the best teams in the state competed in a game known as Squared Away, which require robots to move and stack cubes into scoring zones or platforms, as well as place balls in or on top of the cubes for points.

The Kamehameha team was made up of three boys who also are fairly new to robotics — 8th-graders Kaumaka Roback and Noah Kalehuawehe, both in their second year of robotics experience, and 6th-grader Vann Siphers, who’s brand new. Up against stiffer state competition, the team had to score much higher than they had in the regular season.

Vann Siphers and Noah Kalehuawehe of Kamehameha Schools Maui control their robot during the VEX IQ state competition in Pukalani on Saturday.

“I tell my kids, the point of robotics is really for anybody to design and program a robot that anybody can step up to and pick up that controller and be successful,” Tanaka-Akana said. “So it takes a lot of design thinking and going to your engineering stats and being critical of yourself and the work you’re doing.”

Kamehameha’s team, the Architechs, earned the Teamwork 2nd Place Award alongside the Mililani Masters of Cornerstone Engineering Robotics. The Architechs also won the Sportsmanship Award.

Tanaka-Akana, who coaches Kamehameha along with his wife Joanne, Brenden Boyd and Aimee Pa’a, said that the program is “very student led,” so while at times it’s hard to watch them struggle, it’s also rewarding when they put their minds toward solving a problem. When asked what the team would change in the lead-up to worlds, he said it was up to the students.

“It’s up to them to sit down, really analyze what went right, what went wrong at the tournament, and take into account the time that we have left till the world competition,” he said. “They really have to map out what they want to do.”

Meanwhile, Maui Waena’s two teams finished sixth and eighth in the finalist rankings, but one took home the Robot Skills prize that qualified them for worlds.

The two-person team of 6th-grader Alaina Hook and 7th-grader Braeden Asuncion had to show off their driving and programming abilities to win the challenge. Coach Jennifer Suzuki said that Alaina was the builder; she built a prototype over the summer and kept testing it throughout the season. Braeden, meanwhile, wrote a program that would allow the robot to go out, pick up and stack cubes.

“And it sounds easy, but it’s really not easy,” Suzuki said.

Suzuki said that teams had one minute to allow their robots to run autonomously and score as many points as possible, then 30 seconds to drive the robots. Each team got three attempts at driving and three attempts at programming, and organizers took the highest score in each category.

“It’s funny to watch because they’re both super calm,” she said. “They have no expressions on their face when they drive. . . . They’re like ice cubes. I get excited. I’m jumping around. I had to go back and check the score like 100 times.”

Suzuki said the school had a more advanced “Chinese-style robot” that could stack balls, but it was their less competitive, more consistent robot that actually helped them win the skills challenge.

Suzuki has been coaching Maui Waena since 2009, and said they’ve been involved in robotics competitions before. However, this is just their third year in the VEX IQ realm, and their first time ever going to the world championships. The students, she said, “always amaze me.”

“Sometimes it feels like nothing’s happening . . . then just magic happens,” she said. “I think I was most impressed with the way they were all helping each other. They’re just so supportive of each other, like a family.”

Maui Waena will be fundraising to take seven people to Louisville. Suzuki said if anyone is interested in donating, they can contact her at 385-2942 or mwis.suzuki@gmail.com.

Other Maui County teams also brought home awards over the weekend. The Kolohe Kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Maui won the Build Award while finishing fourth in the finalist rankings. The Molokai Robotics and Kualapuu Comets — a private team made up of Molokai Middle School and Kualapu’u Charter School students — earned third place in the Robot Skills challenge. The Pala’au Fishermen and Kalo Farmers of Molokai Middle finished fourth and seventh in the finalist rankings, respectively, while the school’s Na’iwa Warriors were 24th in the teamwork standings.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.


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