Local schools compete in battle for robotics title

DULUTH - Thousands of high school students from across the south packed the Gwinnett Civic Center on Saturday in what might be described as the technology equivalent to a state basketball final.

Instead of humans trying to toss a ball into a hoop though, it was robots competing on the field of play while their teenage builders stood off to the side controlling them and throwing balls. There were even zebra-striped referees calling the game.

That game, played both by the robots and their human controllers, was called "Lunacy," named in commemoration of the moon landing, and the competition was part of the For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology (FIRST) robotics competition, a global program designed to get students excited about science and technology.

With the teams' fanbase packing the stands and cheering loudly for the their robots, the event proved to be quite a hit amongst its contestants, three of which were teams from North Gwinnett, Peachtree Ridge and Duluth.

According to Jon Spencer, a Cisco systems computer software engineer who mentors the North Gwinnett team, the goal isn't necessarily about winning.

"It's about the kids learning to work together to solve problems under pressure," Spencer said. "That builds confidence which is only going to make them doers when they get to college."

Senior Nick Cesar, the design leader for North Gwinnett who wants to study mechanical and electrical engineering, said he hopes to take what he's learned from the robotics team and apply it to developing electric vehicles someday.

"I'm into electric motors a lot and I think electric vehicles is where we're headed once we have a viable power source," Cesar said. "Electric vehicle design would be cool."

Cesar also couldn't speak highly enough about what he's learned from the robotics team experience.

"It's been awesome because it gets so many people interested in technology and that is what we need," Cesar said. "Engineers push technology forward and the more we have technology, the better our country will be."

Duluth team member Shane Falkowski said don't expect to see the robotics competition highlights on ESPN's SportsCenter anytime soon, though.

"They had the BattleBots but that went off the air," Falkowski said.

His teammates - The Robots of the Roundtable - hope their counterpart is proved wrong and liked the idea of a new 21st century sport.

"He's the pessimist of our group," joked Scott Cummins.

Duluth's team led by robot "Tim the Enchanter" and North Gwinnett's team led by its "Black Widow" were both eliminated in the first round of the semifinals. Peachtree Ridge bowed out in the quarterfinals. And like Spencer said, it's not about winning, but rather learning to work together.

Everyone Saturday seemed to have that skill mastered.