Richmond, Va., FIRST Robotics Regional Tournament
Thousands of high school students, some with Mohawks and face paint, and others in costumes and glitter, filled the stadium at Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center in Richmond on Friday. It wasn't a rock concert or basketball game they were attending -- but something way more exciting. You could actually describe it as "robotic."

Sixty-three high school robotics teams from Virginia and four other states met over the weekend to compete in the FIRST Robotics regional tournament. Since February, 1,800 teams across the world have been working to reach the annual championship held in April at the Georgia Dome.

Teams of students and their mentors have worked since January assembling and programming robots to compete in the soccer-like game called "Breakaway" at the tournament. In the game, two alliances of three teams competed on a 27-by-54-foot (8.2 m by 16.5 m) field with bumps, earning points by guiding their robots to kick soccer balls into goals.

Va. Governor Bob McDonnell
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Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell kicked off the event, welcoming students and praising their creativity.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Kicking off the competition was Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-Va), who welcomed the students Friday morning, saluting them for their creativity and innovation.

"We understand here in Virginia the importance of science, technology, engineering and math to our future," McDonnell told the students. "What you're going to be able to do through this competition and through your lifelong pursuit of innovation and excellence is, number one, to be able to come up with things that will make life better for other people. And secondly, I can tell you that you could make a lot of money if you work hard in these technology fields."

He jokingly added that he knew he was in for a fun day when he heard one of the team's names was "Three Dudes With Attitudes."

In the pits, students worked up to the last minute. Sounds of hammers, drills and sawing filled the air as students prepared their robots for the start of the competition.

Hickory High School student Zach Robinson from Chesapeake, Va., could barely speak after cheering on his team during practice matches the day before.

Alison Gate has a collection of buttons from every robotics competition in which she has participated
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Alison Gate, head of programming for the James Madison School team, has buttons from every FIRST Robotics regional competition she's been to -- more than 150 in all!
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

"This is my first time here, and it's been non-stop excitement," Robinson said Friday. "This is just so much fun. I love doing this."

Alison Gate, a senior from James Madison High School in Vienna, Va., and head of programming for her team, was decked out in buttons that she has collected over the years from all the robotics competitions she's participated in. "I have about 150 of them," she said. "If I was wearing pants, I could have pinned them all on."

Gate, who plans to study computer science and engineering in college, said FIRST Robotics is one of the most exciting thing she's been a part of in high school.

"It's challenging, and it's been a lot of fun," she said.

As the tournament began, the momentum increased. An energetic announcer gave play-by-play commentary adding to the hype. Robots were put in motion and teammates cheered each other on.

Juliana Wu, co-captain of the NASA Knights from Hampton, along with team mentor Grant Weinmann, pumped up their royal blue and silver-clad teammates with thumbs-up signs and motivational chanting.

Members of the NASA Knights team from the New Horizons Regional Education Center in Hampton, Va.
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Juliana Wu, co-captain of the NASA Knights, pumps up her teammates. The NASA Knights received the prestigious 2010 Chairman's Award.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

"This experience is amazing," Wu said. "All the teams here are wonderful and we are excited to be here."

The NASA Knights team from New Horizons Regional Education Center in Hampton has participated in the FIRST Regional tournament for the past 13 years. The team received the Entrepreneurship Award and the 2010 Chairman's Award, which is the most prestigious award given.

The Chairman's award means that in the judges' estimation, the NASA Knights best represent a model for other teams to emulate, embodying the goals and mission of FIRST.

Teams from Henrico, Falls Church and Montvale, N.J., were the winners from the weekend competition.

Described as the "varsity sports of the mind," FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen. Kamen, the creator of the Segway, said he wanted to inspire youngster's participation in science and technology, "by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes."

Amy Johnson
NASA Langley Research Center