Were it not for the up-tempo techno music, bright lights and mascots jigging before a crowd, the scene inside the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena on Saturday could have passed for a spirited warehouse cleanup.
Instead, the spectacle marked the state’s fourth 30-team high school robotics tournament, showcasing the best of one of the country’s largest collection of teams.
“It’s a major team sport. They just happen to learn real-world skills,” said Mark Lawrence, who helped start Edina’s team and plans tournaments in the region. “This is the only sport where everybody can turn pro.”
Alliances of three teams battled in an eight-match qualifying round to start the day, competing in a format that changes each year. While last year’s teams guided robots to launch balls through a goal, this year’s task involved collecting and stacking recycling bins and yellow tote boxes while cleaning up “litter” in the form of multicolored pool noodles.
“The key is consistency,” Rochester junior Neehar Banerjee said.
Banerjee, a team captain, said she wanted her team’s robot, Fezzik, to be seen by other teams as a valuable asset. After qualifying is over, the top teams could ask others to form alliances for the final rounds.
As teams duked it out on the main floor, others tinkered with their robots in the pit area on the other side of the arena. In addition to an adviser, each team is flanked by a handful of mentors who often are professional engineers.
Nathan Brown, an American Medical Systems engineer and Apple Valley High mentor, watched the school’s Knights of the Valley go from 59th place at last year’s 60-team regional tournament to maintaining a top-five position through Saturday’s qualifying matches.
“We turned this program around in one year,” Brown said.
Given just six weeks to build the robot, Apple Valley’s Spock proved to be a capable stacker. Midway through qualifying, Spock wasted little time piling three yellow boxes in the scoring area, a move rewarded when another team topped that stack at the last second to earn each 40 points and keep the Knights of the Valley near the top of the standings.
Apple Valley sophomore Kyle Lundburg, one of Spock’s drivers, displayed an optimistic, if measured, air upon returning to the pit.
“We’ve just got to make sure our battery’s charged and our joints are tight,” Lundburg said.