As cheers and blasting music echo through Dorton Arena, an unusual group of competitors rolls onto the court: 6-foot-tall, metal-frame robots.
Welcome to March Madness for aspiring engineers. It’s the N.C. FIRST Robotics Competition, where high school teams battle for points and prizes using robots they built themselves.
More than 50 teams from across North Carolina and neighboring states spent two days at the State Fairgrounds to see who could build the best robot. In two-minute bouts, the robots had to move and stack as many plastic storage bins and trash cans as possible.
The teams with the biggest stacks got more points. And the robots got close inspections from judges, who handed out more than a dozen awards for creativity, safety, innovation and other criteria.
“It’s a challenge that I really enjoy,” said Julian Berla, a freshman on Research Triangle High School’s TerrorBytes team. “We only have six weeks to build this thing.”
The Durham charter school was competing for its third year. The robotics crew was made up of subteams responsible for different aspects of the robot’s construction, from its electrical system to its overall design. During the building period, the team met nearly every day after school and on weekends.
This year, the TerrorBytes had an advantage: Members had designed the robot’s wheels to move in any direction at the touch of a button. That’s important in a contest where precise movement is key to a stable stack of plastic.
It paid off as Research Triangle High made it to the final round for the first time, joining an alliance with two other teams to finish out the weekend.
The charter school’s team has more than a dozen members and more students are getting interested. “They see how cool building a robot is,” Berla said of his classmates. And while engineering might seem geeky, he said “there’s a place for everyone” in the close-knit group.
Robotics competitions are a fast-growing “sport for the mind,” according to Marie Hopper, executive director of N.C. FIRST. The group’s competition in 2010 had just 10 teams, and participation by female and minority students has increased as well.
“We’re reaching the underserved and underrepresented population in the STEM fields,” she said, adding that the robot building process teaches science, math, engineering and teamwork skills. “When students enter this program, school becomes more relevant.”
Having “robot designer” on a high school student’s resume can also boost their prospects. “Colleges are fighting for these kids, and industries are fighting for these kids,” Hopper said.
It’s helpful in landing internships, too, as the teams have close relationships with tech and engineering companies that sponsor them. Robot materials can cost up to $8,000, so most teams raise funds and bring in professionals from the community to serve as mentors.
The competition also had a computer science component. The robots had to be fully automated for the first 15 seconds of each round, offering extra points for robots that can get into position without being directly controlled.
The robot built by Cary’s Green Hope High School ran off a laptop and two video game-style joysticks. Daniel Lieberman, a sophomore on the team, said he was surprised how much work must be done before the team constructs the robot.
“I didn’t think of how much design there would be,” he said.