This year's regional robotics competition at the University of Minnesota is so big it will take up two sports arenas.
About 120 high school teams from Minnesota and surrounding states have designed robots that can throw Frisbees and climb a 10-foot-tall pyramid. The competition takes place Friday and Saturday at Mariucci and Williams arenas, with the top teams heading to St. Louis in April for nationals.
"There's a lot of energy," said Mark Lawrence, who advises the Edina High School team and is planning chairman for the event. "It's just like a championship playoff in any other sport. There's mascots, there's dancing, there's rock music, and it's hard to imagine what this is like unless you've seen it."
This year 180 Minnesota schools have FIRST Robotics teams. That compares with just two teams in 2006, when Lawrence first became involved. In fact, more Minnesota schools have robotics teams than hockey teams.
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Nationally, Minnesota ranks third for the number of robotics teams, behind California and Michigan, Lawrence said.
"There's a number of kids that are really competitive, but they tend to not migrate toward sports so much as they do other activities, and what this has done is really let them be active in a competitive environment yet still exercise their intellectual capabilities," he said.
The FIRST Robotics program began in the early '90s in New Hampshire to promote education in science, technology, engineering in math (STEM), Lawrence said.
This year's competition features robots that weigh about 120 pounds. Three teams are grouped together to compete against three other teams on the field. At the end of several rounds, the top eight teams will get to pick their partners to square off in the final rounds on Saturday afternoon.
Lawrence said the tournament's "coopetition" design encourages the more advanced teams to fan out among the rookie teams and help fix broken robots or improve their capabilities.
"It's very unusual," he said. "That's a design of the game that creates a behavior that's pretty interesting. In one match you might be playing with a team, yet in the next match you're competing against it, but you still want that robot to behave as well as it can when you're playing with it as a team member."
Friday and Saturday's events are free and open to the public.