Cheered on by crazily dressed fans, robots took over a basketball court at Drexel University yesterday.
In the annual Regional Robotics Competition, about 1,500 high school students and their families got to see where they placed in robot-building. Coming from eight states, each school had to build a 7-foot, 110-pound robot in six weeks.
Joseph Troy, manager of computer training in the Upper Darby School District, was a mentor for his high school's team. He said that although this seems like a competition to see who makes the best robot, it's really about something else.
"It's great to encourage young minds to think innovatively," said Troy. "It takes a while to teach a student that there isn't always a right answer, and this gets them to think in a way that isn't usually taught in a classroom."
The annual competition is sponsored by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), founded by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway.
This year's game, called "Overdrive," divided six schools into two teams whose robots competed to knock down 40-inch-diameter track balls and then maneuver the balls around a track. Following the commands of the students, the robots even passed the balls over or under a seven-foot-tall overpass for points.
"This is crazier than any sporting event you'll go to," said Lindsay Bennett, a senior from George Washington High School in Northeast Philadelphia.
Students wore team T-shirts, pins and face paint to show school pride. Some even dressed as school mascots - in wizard, jester, and hawk suits - and danced as their teams were up in the race.
"We've come together as a team, and we're really proud at the end of this, even with the problems we've had," said Chris Robus, also from George Washington. That team's robot, named RoboGriff, had developed a programming problem - it moved from side to side rather than straight ahead.
In "the pit," where students and mentors worked to repair robots between competitions, students from Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont put several plastic pink flamingos on display. A school from New York state had a red-and-black camouflage-print tent set up, and students wore matching pants.
This was one of more than 40 regional competitions. Winners will move on to the championship competition in Atlanta in a few weeks.
When the robotics competition was started in 1989, 10 Philadelphia schools were involved, said Deb Liberman, a biology teacher from George Washington. This year, only four schools competed.
"We're happy to be one of them, but it's a little sad that the School District can't fund as many schools anymore," said Liberman.
Melissa Cell, a senior at Upper Darby High, has been offered a scholarship from Drexel because of her involvement in FIRST.
"I've done this for all four years," said Cell. "I knew I was interested in engineering since I was in seventh grade."
Other students just enjoy the experience.
"I've learned so much doing this," said Bennett. "It's funny, though, because I'll be going to college next year, majoring in Spanish."
The top 24 among the 44 teams compete again today at the Daskalakis Athletic Center at Drexel.
Check out the robots in action at