Next month while much of America is fixated on March Madness, a large crowd will cram its way into Bridgewater-Raritan High School in Bridgewater, New Jersey. There will be painted faces and cheerleaders, cowbells and mascots, rival fans chanting at each other, ear splitting techno music, a roaring emcee, referees in the requisite striped shirts and lots and lots of tension filled competition.
It is not wrestling or hoops or even a dance competition. It will be the Mid-Atlantic Robotics Championship, with over 30 high schools from the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware competing for best in region with their self-created, highly organized and ultra-customized robots doing a myriad of head to head tasks. There will be private school kids and public school programs, kids from Newark and Philly, New Castle and Harrisburg. They have names like the RoboWarriors and the Miracle Workers, LuNaTecs and Pi-oneers. There will be faces painted and logo’ed flags to rival any traditional sporting contest. The field of play even resembles a hockey rink, complete with boards and plexiglass.
The regional competition will be the latest in a robotics “season,” which runs from February through April. Teams as large as 100 students or more work on various aspects of the presentation, from video and animation to programming and design, each helping to task and tell the story around the assigned robotic project. The winners move on again to either St. Louis and the Edward Jones Dome or to Austin, Texas later this spring (the competition has outgrown one home), where over 30,000 students, parents and coaches will gather for one of the most inspiring, creative and interactive team events that will be held in the Dome all year.
The overall program is entitled FIRST, standing for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology and was the brainchild of Segway PT inventor Dean Kamen over 25 years ago with the goal of boosting science in the way that high school’s glorify sports.
The competition is not your father’s Erector Set version of building a robot. Each team trains for weeks many using the designated program to have its robot perform a series of complex tasks against another table of robots, with competition set up in teams of three.
However what is more amazing is the sense of fun, competition and creativity that each of the teams have throughout the event. From posters to mascots to elongated signs, the students and their supporters cheer with a fervor that would match any athletic event. Everyone who goes sees the best of what robotics has to offer…healthy competition with a mosaic of children from every ethnic and social background in a healthy competition devoid of many of the trappings that childhood events have these days. There may be some uber parents in the crowd, but most were there for good natured support both moral and emotional.
Club robotic competitions have propped up all around the country and are growing with each passing semester, from sixth grade through high school. There is no “Revenge of the Nerds” feeling at all. Most of the kids look fit, coordinated and ready to do battle in every form of athletics as well as a competition of the mind. Indeed, mind sports, from robotics to other activities like chess, bridge and even poker, are being seen more and more by organizations like the International Olympic Committee as a way to teach strategy that applies to traditional athletics and help grow the whole young person, combining a healthy mind with a healthy body. Also the rise of “Money Ball” in traditional athletics, where front office positions are being taken up by young people who understand business and strategy as well as athletic fundamentals, is also spurring a new generation where young people will take academics and team activities in the lab or the classroom as seriously as many take athletics. Then factor in eSports and Drone Racing and VR and AR, and you get the picture. For a rising immigrant population that is more focused in many ways on academics but who is still trying to assimilate to American culture through athletics, activities like robotics provide a great balance. For young people who like athletics but are not into the ultra-competitive areas of Little League or Gymnastics, robotics and mind sports can also provide a balance, instilling that sense of team and competition while sating the mind and the skills they excel at as well.
For brands looking to activate against an audience that understands both team competition and gaming, robotics is also a unique answer for engagement. Those brands…Bloomberg, ADP, Comcast Universal, Johnson & Johnson, duPont, Novartis, DOW, even AVON (empowering teams of young girls) will be on display all weekend.
Now it is not to say that analytics and team competitions like robotics should be at the detriment of traditional sports or even E-gaming. There is a place for both, and the two actually complement each other very well. However in a society today where young people are getting more and more technologically savvy, competitions like mind sports and robotics can fill a growing need, keeping young people active and involved and finding ways to stimulate the mind as well as the body.
Is it the start of a long term trend of cyber warriors, or a fad like crystal radios and rocketry was in the 1960’s or 1970’s? The jury is still out, but judging from the crowds, the engagement and the spirit of competition, the “sport” of competitive robotics is here to stay, and that is not a bad thing for a young group who wants to grow into a well-rounded and healthy adult.
Most importantly robotics takes kids interested in science, gaming and technology as well as sport, and puts them into a public setting where they have to actually interact with each other, a revolutionary idea in a world where “interaction” is done more by thumbs and keystrokes not by spoken words and actions as a group.
While not replacing traditional athletics in any way, robotics is becoming more and more intriguing, a well-intentioned and healthy type of “sport” whose time is definitely coming. March Mathness is coming.