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Students Design, Maneuver Robots in California Competition

Each year in March and April, competitions are held around the United States to test the skills of students in designing and using robots – machines that perform basic human tasks. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan went to a recent competition in Los Angeles.

First, the students design and build their mechanical surrogates. Then, using remote controls, the students operate the robots in a competition – maneuvering the robots to grab inflated hoops and slide them onto target posts in a special pattern.

Paul Gudonis is president of FIRST, a nonprofit organization that promotes science and technology, and sponsors the competition.

"We have got thousands of high school kids here who have built robots over the last six weeks,” he says. “And they are competing to show that they have got what it takes to win this sport of the mind."

There is a carnival atmosphere, but competition is intense.

Leila Zheng of Toronto, Canada, a first-time participant, enjoys the interaction. "Well, there is so much to learn from building the robot, from talking to the other teams and sponsors," she says.

Technology and aerospace companies, such as Northrop Grumman, sponsor the student entries.

Adam Hurd of Redondo Beach, California, has entered the competition each of his four years in high school. "And there is so much to learn,” he says. “There are so many areas of the robotics that you can study, anything you [want to] know. You can transfer back and forth between things. I started as a programmer and now I design the drive trains and do 3D design in computers and all that."

Alice Gray of Arroyo Grande High School near Los Angeles is also here for her fourth year. "The competitions, of course, are one of the most amazing things. It's just so fun, the atmosphere, the energy, the thrill of competition. It is amazing," she says.

Alice studied performing arts when she started high school, but the robotic competitions have changed her career goals.

"When I first started on the team, I was unsure of what I wanted to do,” she says. “I had been on stage all my life, but I was thinking of going into psychology or something. However, after my second year on the team, I now know for certain that I want to be an mechanical engineer."

The robotic competitions challenge participants to use their ingenuity and sharpen their reflexes. Teams are rewarded for design, spirit, problem solving, maturity, courtesy and professionalism.

More than 1,100 teams take part in regional competitions and a national championship.