Last Saturday the gym at Mt. Olive High School in Flanders, New jersey was filled to capacity. Mascots roamed the floor, music blared, cheerleaders encouraged little children and parents alike to rise to their feet and cheer, and schools from across the state waged battle against each other for an elusive state title.
It wasn’t hoops or football or wrestling, it was robotics, and judging by the size of the crowd and the over 40 schools that participated in the state final from Marlton to Jersey City, the idea of healthy mind, healthy body os alive and well in the Garden State. The day long event was the culmination of work by middle school students from across New Jersey, each team of whom had to first score well in a country tournament to move on to the state event, with the winner moving on to the World Championships in St. Louis next spring.
The competition was not your father’s Erector Set version of building a robot. Each team had trained for weeks using the LEGO Mind Storm system to have its robot perform a series of complex tasks in 2:30 seconds against another table of robots. The tension was palpable and the sense of team was very, very apparent. The final result saw the Cyber Hawks from River Vale, New Jersey perform the most flawless of tasks throughout the day, earning the state title and moving on to the worlds.
However what is more amazing is the sense of fun, competition and creativity that each of the teams took on throughout the event. From posters to mascots to elongated signs, the students and their supporters cheered with a fervor that would match any athletic event. Everyone who came saw the best of what New Jersey 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 have been some uber parents in the crowd, but most were there for good natured support both moral and emotional.
The rise of competitive robotics is not just limited to New Jersey. Club robotic competitions have propped up all around the country and are growing with each passing semester, from sixth grade through high school. There was also no “Revenge of the Nerds” feeling at all. Many of the kids looked 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. 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 ultras 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. Now it is not to say that analytics and team competitions like robotics should be at the detriment of traditional sports. There is a place for both, and the two actually compliment 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 bis 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.
Congrats competitors, on to the worlds!