Robots and their young builders invaded Hillsborough Community College's Brandon campus recently in the name of engineering, medicine and some plain old healthy competition.
The educational facility hosted the season kick-off tournament here in Hillsborough County for the FIRST Lego League. Twenty teams of students from schools around the bay area participated in the Dec. 11 event, including one from Lake St. George Elementary in Palm Harbor.
"We had to build the robot by ourselves," said student Megan Cocks, 10. "It took a couple of days."
Fellow "Nano Krunch" team member Elena Torres, 9, explained that the team's thought process for designing their remote control car-sized Lego robot was to keep things simple.
"This is our rookie year," the youngster said. "The robot can fit through tighter spaces."
FIRST is an international organization whose mission is to promote interest in science and technology for youngsters. Brandon's event was coordinated by TechPlayzone, a science and technology center in Riverview.
"What it does is use Legos as the hook to get the kids interested in math and science," said Desh Bagley, chief executive officer of TechPlayzone and the tournament's director. "Then there's the competitive element and they get excited again."
Teams — vying for a chance to advance to the regional championships on Feb. 5 at Hillsborough High School in Tampa — went head to head through a series of 2.5-minute rounds, accumulating points by having their robots perform as many tasks as possible in the allotted time. Additionally, each team of students ages 9 through 14 had to research a medical problem, come up with a solution to that problem, and wow judges with their technical and teamwork skills. Lung cancer and headaches were among the problems that were tackled in the research component.
The groups were among more than 18,000 worldwide taking part in Body Forward 2010, which has a biomedical theme.
Team members watched on in suspense as their robots were manipulated around the playing area to perform various assigned tasks. "Wait, there's 32 seconds left. I can do this!" one youngster shouted out as he guided his team's robot.
Michael Jackson and other popular music played in the background while the excitement levels rivaled that of a Little League game — and that was exactly the idea, Bagley said.
"It's like Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST, used to say, 'In our society, we look up to athletes and rockstars,' " Bagley said. "'Why can't we use that same type of rock-star atmosphere and show them competitiveness for the mind?"'
While there was a competitive air to the event in the head- to-head matches, it wasn't exactly football, said Greg Verrill, coach for the team from Lomax Magnet Elementary School in Tampa.
"We're not out to get the other kids," he said. "It's more of a cooperative thing."
The robotics tournament tested his charges' minds. "It teaches kids how to do research, teaches them how to be part of a team," said Verrill, whose group placed second overall early in the morning.
What did Lomax's Anaiya Payne, 10, like best about the tournament?
"The research," she said. "There's many different ways to make biomedical things that help people."
It was certainly a learning process for fellow teammate Hussain Jhaveri, 11. For example, he found out that eating fried apples can have positive results on a headache.
"I tried it," he said proudly. "It works."