MARCH MADNESS may be over, but the hardwood at the Liacouras Center is still packed with players.

The Owls' nest is hosting the mid-Atlantic region championship for FIRST, a national robotics competition for high school students. Throughout the weekend, 53 teams from across Delaware, New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania will put their mechanical creations through "Rebound Rumble" (basketball adapted for robots) for a shot to qualify for the finals in St. Louis and the title of national champions.

But, according to the adults mentoring these students, FIRST is about much more than bragging rights.

"In some sense, it's a chance for students to interact with other kids who share their interests," said David Cohen, an engineer with Chant Engineering in Chalfont, Bucks County, and the mentor for the joint Springfield-Cheltenham High School team. "Ideas get nurtured here like nowhere else. It's very empowering."

The brainchild of Segway inventor Dean Kamen, FIRST was founded in 1989 to get students more interested in science and technology.

At the start of the season, each team is provided with a kit with parts to design a robot that can participate in the contest's game, which changes every year. The students then spend the winter assembling their robots, developing software and formulating strategies to use against their opponents.

"The robots are just the hook to get them engaged," said Peter Randall, mentor for Springside Chestnut Hill Academy's team. "The program is really about teaching the students to deal with problems above their skill level and to reach outside themselves to find the resources to solve them."

Tim Menninger can attest to that. Menninger, a member of Randall's team, has been competing in FIRST for all four years of high school, and says it's been a springboard into his career aspirations.

"Engineering has always been on my radar, but FIRST definitely increased its role in my life," he said. "I now know what I want to do with my life and what I need to do to get there. Participating in FIRST was best decision I ever made."