MANATEE -- A lot can go wrong in a robot arena. Batteries wane. Parts unfasten. Robots tangle.
A boy stopped Bayshore High School Technology Student Association advisor Martha Proulx abruptly in the hallway of the high school Saturday.
"Mrs. Proulx? Today is going much better than I thought it would," Kyle Medeiros, 16, reported briskly, then paused dramatically. "We have a working robot."
More than 30 teams came to Bayshore High School -- including a brand new team from King Middle School and teams from Tampa and Naples -- for the second competition in a new robotics league that allows students of all skill levels to compete with robots made from kits from a company named VEX.
"The main reason we put this together is to help all the area teams get up to speed on VEX robotics," Proulx said. "The league gives the students five opportunities in the local area to come together."
Bayshore High School started hosting the league, which includes four informal competitions at Bayshore High School and a final tournament, this year. It's a model that allows teams to rack up points over several weekends and compete for a
chance to go to national and world competitions.
The VEX matches,sponsored by the Robotics Education Competition Foundation, vary from year to year. This year, students compete in a "Sack Attack" challenge, where competitors try to outscore their opponents by placing bean bags in certain squares or raised troughs in an arena.
"It's one of the most important technologies that we can roll onto our kids," said Proulx, who is also an engineering and robotics teacher at Bayshore High. "They need to know programming, engineering and how to build off each other's ideas."
Medeiros met up with teammates Jose Brantley, 16, and Isaiah Rorie, 15, to evaluate problems with their robot after running into Proulx on Saturday. His team won their first match, but then lost the next when an arm slid out of place and sucked up too much battery power.
The arm worked better the next round, but they ran into other problems. The structure tripped up when it ran over a bean bag.
Medeiros shrugged when the match was over. "We'll keep working on it," he said.
Some, like the King Middle team, started Saturday with a box of robot parts. Others, already at the world level, worked to perfect their model.
Cameron Powell, 18, and Zack Zofrea, 17, are two-time national champs who have already qualified for the world championships this spring in Anaheim, Calif. The two seniors, who are dually enrolled in State College of Florida's collegiate school, compete with a model that's built to scoop five to six bean bags at a time. Often, they find themselves winning by such a margin in competitions that they might start scoring for the other team, because winners accumulate their opponent's scores, Proulx said.
The duo is keeping tabs on teams from Singapore and China to make sure their scores are on track to be competitive at worlds.
One thing that is changing about robotics competitions, Proulx said, is the number of female teams competing.
All-girl teams are continuing to pop up this year, Proulx says, bucking any old-fashioned ideas that engineering is for men.
Madison Perry and Sarah-Ann Polyakovics are Bayshore High School's only girl team. They went straight for the extra-point bean bags on Saturday and consistently scored during the part of the match when robots operate only on pre-programming.
Perry's grandfather, Steve Garati, beamed as he watched her compete Saturday and proudly wondered aloud when NASA would be calling.
"And this is supposed to a male thing?" he said. Then he laughed because his granddaughter's team had just clobbered three boys' teams.
Perry, a junior, said she's been only been involved with robotics for a few months, but quickly experienced an initial lack of respect because she is a girl.
"People ignore us until they realize we can win," Perry said. "Then they want to see our robot."
The robotics program, which at Bayshore isa part of the TechnologyStudent Association club, has been funded through some grants but is always in need of community sponsors.
Basic robots kits cost around $600, while more advanced models are worth more than $1,000, Proulx said.
The King Middle School team was made possible this year because of grant money that was able to provide basic robot kits for TSA students.
Matthew Benecke and Chris Weinert, both 12, and Jacob DeWitty, 11, got involved with robotics through the club.
"I'm building a robot, and he's making one too so we can compete against each other." Weinert, 12, said Saturday, pointing to Benecke.
"Later, we'll make one big one and compete together."
Why robotics when TSA offers so many technologies to pursue?
"I used to play with Legos a lot," DeWitty said. "This is similar."
Brantley has another simple reason for wanting to participate.
"Friends and robots."
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.