The bleachers packed to the rafters with raucous supporters, Bridgewater State University’s gymnasium felt more like it was hosting a state basketball tournament last month than the Massachusetts high school robotics competition.
As a YouTube video of the event made clear, the tension was palpable as two Natick High teams — Hank’s Tanks and the Aluminum Cobblers — squared off in the final match of the elimination round. It went to a tiebreaker before Hank’s Tanks advanced to the regional competition that was held last weekend in Pennsylvania.
The Natick students were joined by counterparts from Lexington, Lincoln, Sharon, Sheffield, and New Bedford competing at the FIRST Tech Challenge’s East Super-Regional tournament, which drew 72 teams from Maine to Virginia.
The Lincoln-based GearTicks and Lexington High’s 2 Bits and a Byte advanced to the organization’s world championship, taking place April 23 to 26 in St. Louis.
“A lot of people are really committed to robotics. It’s great fun,” said GearTicks member Caleb Sander, 14, whose team won the top judged award at the state championship on March 8. “Almost all the teams are very, very good once you get to into the state competition. They are very, very invested in what they are doing.”
The local students are among the some 1,500 across the state who are mad for the FIRST (or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Tech Challenge robotics tournaments.
In the competitions, students build and program robots to perform various point-earning tasks, such as picking up blocks and placing them in a bin, or hanging off a crossbar in the field of play (worthy of bonus points).
The elimination rounds “get pretty tense,’’ Sander said. “We’ve been in a lot of those and it always turns out very different each time. It’s always pretty hectic.”
FIRST was founded as a not-for-profit 25 years ago in Manchester, N.H., by Dean Kamen, who is known for inventing the Segway transporter, the iBOT all-terrain wheelchair, and the first insulin pump.
The first robotics tournament started with 28 teams.
With more than 350,000 students participating in FIRST programs nationwide for this year’s program, robotics has become so popular that organizers were prompted to create a new tournament level — last weekend’s event was the inaugural East Super-Regional — as a way to allow more teams to compete closer to home.
Aside from the FTC tournament, which is for grades 7 to 12, FIRST also has a high school level that features 150-pound robots, and its LEGO League has a division for kindergarten to Grade 3, and another one for grades 4 to 8.
Kamen’s goal is to get students as excited about math and science as about sports.
“As much of an obsession with football and basketball as this country has, we continue to slide in international career opportunities. . . There’s not a job shortage, there’s a skill shortage to fill the right jobs,” Kamen said in a telephone interview.
Kamen said that giving students points, not grades, and having them compete in a double-elimination tournament make FIRST a sport. Not to mention that cheerleaders, bands, mascots, and fans are screaming their heads off during the action.
At the start of the FIRST Tech Challenge season, the students — who are guided by volunteer mentors — construct robots that have to fit inside an 18-inch cube, operate on one battery, and use certain kinds of motors. They are given a starter kit and can use outside materials as long as they are raw and not manufactured. Modifications to the robots can be made at competitions as long as the robot is reinspected by judges before being returned to the 12-by-12-foot field of play.
Students raise funds to support their teams, as entrance fees for competitions can range from $1,000 to $6,000.
Lexington High senior Xyla Foxlin, 17, joined the team as a freshman and went to the world finals as a sophomore two years ago, when the team finished fifth.
Now she’s one of the captains, and when the team advisor was away from school earlier this year, she had to do all of the administrative work for the team, including the accounting and dealing with the school’s main office and administration.
“I learned a lot about leading and teamwork and booking hotels and lodging,” she said.
Sharon High senior Manasa Raman said her parents thought she was a slave to her robot overlords when she joined her local squad, Team Unlimited, five years ago. As tournaments approach, she works on robotics from after school until midnight some nights. But her folks finally came around after attending a competition and seeing how hard the team works.
“All the parents put in a lot of effort and pitch in to make us food, buy us soda and coffee,” Raman said. “Whatever we need, they are very supportive.”
Before robotics she planned to do a premed track in college, she said, but now that she is set to attend Washington University in the fall, she plans to also study biomedical engineering.
“It has really spurred my interest in engineering and that mind-set and way to approach a problem, rather than blindly doing it,” she said. “But most important to me is the friends I’ve made on the team; it’s not as serious as other people may think.”
Anne Hutchinson, who coaches Lincoln’s team, said that the best part of the robotics program is that there is more than one right answer.
“And none of the adults in the room know the right answer,” she said. “We don’t know what the answer is, and we could frequently tell the kids the wrong answer because we don’t know. So the kids are doing exploring and figuring out with the adults rather than try to get the answer from the adults. I think that’s a really powerful thing for the kids to go through.”
Like any sport, there are certainly more efficient ways of competing. Natick’s state championship team got an inside track by designing a robot — modeled after a recycling truck — that drops the blocks behind it and into the target.
The design saves valuable seconds by not having to turn around or move back and forth, unlike most of its rivals.
“So they score a ton of blocks,” coach Doug Scott said. “It’s like a block monster. It’s crazy. . . They did it. They came up with the neat idea.”
Justin Rice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.