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May 28, 2017

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National robotics competition pits local students against each other in the name of science

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L.E. Baskow

Team Highrollers of Las Vegas, Nevada, ready their robot in the pit area for their next match at the FIRST Robotics Competition at the Cashman Center on Friday, March, 27, 2015.

2015 First Robotics Competition

Team Clockwork Oranges of Orange, Calif., control their robot in the arena during a match at the FIRST Robotics Competition at the Cashman Center on Friday, March, 27, 2015. Launch slideshow »

When the buzzer sounds inside Cashman Center, dozens of robotic arms swing into action.

A scoreboard pops up on a colorful jumbotron. Cheers erupt from the bleachers. Cameras track every move in the arena.

But the real players are the high schoolers standing in the background. They peer through safety goggles at the action on the court, thumbing joysticks to nudge the boxy metal machines forward.

“Think of it as March Madness for the nerds,” said Jean Hoppert, director of FIRST Nevada.

FIRST is a national organization that tries to get students interested in careers in engineering and technology through competitions, day camps and other science programs.

The machines are not violent like the ones you’d find on popular old television shows like "BattleBots." There are no buzzsaws or spikes tearing metal and dreams to shreds.

Instead, FIRST founder Dean Kamen — the guy who invented the Segway — designed the yearly FIRST Robotics Challenge as “coopertitions,” collaborative efforts between teams to win points by doing everyday tasks like putting trash into a can. It was started in 1992 as a fun way to encourage young people to learn math and science.

This year the theme is recycling. Robots have to be able to lift recycle bins and stack them on top of smaller bins.

Nearly 3,000 teams from around the world participate in a series of regional elimination rounds. The one in Las Vegas this week featured 42 teams from mostly Nevada and California, and a few from Germany and China.

The favorites are the High Rollers, the team from Cimarron High School. Their robot is a towering contraption designed to clamp onto two recycle bins at once. Their competitors can usually only do one.

“We wanted to be able to do everything,” said Chris Woerner, a 16-year-old student at Cimarron.

At the end of one of the three-minute qualifying rounds on Friday, Woerner’s team wheels their robot through crowds of other high schoolers back to a pit area behind the arena. It’s a blur of activity and power tools as students repair damage and tweak sensors.

When they’re not tinkering and programming, they’re handing out personalized business cards to judges and observers. Among the companies that sponsor the Las Vegas event are aircraft manufacturers Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. National Security Technologies, the company that runs the Nevada National Security Site, is the main sponsor.

“In the valley there are very few opportunities for hands-on competitions like this,” said John Barton, a math teacher at Clark High School who acts as adviser to the school’s team.

“I call it the MacGyver Effect,” he said. “It makes them solve real-world problems with real-world solutions.”

The competition is fierce and often stressful, but the students say they like it that way.

“Everything you learn in class you end up applying here,” said Woerner. “I like the attention to detail and I love the pressure.”

Only three teams will advance to the FIRST Championship in St. Louis in April. The winner will be crowned April 25.

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