Who knew March mayhem made its way to Cleveland this year?
The popular college basketball tournament seemed like the most appropriate comparison for the 11th annual Buckeye Regional FIRST Robotics Competition that invaded Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center Thursday through Saturday. It produced the same brand of buzzer-beating jump shots, bracket-style matchups, exuberant cheering sections, dancing mascots and speakers that blared LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.”
Instead of skilled college students taking the court, the FIRST competition featured 59 robots sinking basketball shots and wowing a packed stadium. High school students from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Canada controlled the robots with the use of joysticks and, in some instances, Xbox Kinect. Most of the teams began building and perfecting their robots shortly after New Year’s Day.
“This program is great for kids,” said Jeannette P. Owens, a spokeswoman for NASA, one of the program’s four partners. “It’s really the STEM field ‑ trying to get students motivated in science, technology, engineering and math.”
Most schools brought 20 to 25 students, with three, usually seniors, manning the robots behind a set of miniature basketball hoops. During Saturday morning’s seeding matches, officials grouped three schools together to form one alliance. While two alliances faced off, the six individual schools taking the court were racking up points for their own benefit.
Teams near Columbus, New York and Ontario largely dominated the final top 10 rankings.
’s “Kontrol Freaks” finished 45th, and most of the team’s members loathed the difficulties experienced in their first-ever trip to the competition. Junior Shaun Alexander admitted that “everything that could have gone wrong did,” but he was grateful to pick up some pointers for next year.
“We learned so much this year for next year, we are going to be way more prepared,” Shaun said. “It was great, I got to meet lots of people I didn’t know and made some new friends.”
The “Shorebots” won a Rookie Inspiration award for their 15th-place performance and 6-3-1 record. The students’ results also garnered them the top fill-in spot for the final rounds, giving them the right to step in for a qualifying school if its robot malfunctioned or the team had any other prohibitive issue.
The team, which created “Noble Savage,” finished 27th, but climbed to 19th at one point.
“Being a rookie team, we’re doing really good,” freshman Sam Keyes said. “There’s some really good competition here. It’s exciting.”
Sam said she enjoyed the camaraderie she built with freshman Greg Huba and sophomore Ben Hursh. The trio plans on using the weekend’s experience for future competitions.
The “Robosaurus” left the event ranked 28th. Cheerleaders and a crowd section sporting yellow headbands gave the team some of the loudest support among Northeast Ohio schools.
“The game’s a little bit harder than it was last year,” said Rob Ristau, an assistant advisor and 6th-grade teacher at Beachwood’s Hilltop Elementary School. “We did really well. Our robot’s been doing pretty much everything we built it for. It’s able to score baskets and balance on the grid.”
The “Street Legal” squad placed 37th. Senior Matt Smith said his team chose to focus on other mechanics because it wasn’t able to implement the Kinect technology.
“The system we’re using is almost like a baseball pitch,” said Matt, who is considering a career in engineering. “We have two rollers running at high speeds, and we use a belt to run the balls up the center column. Once it hits those rollers, it bounces off a piece of plastic at the right angle and goes right in.
“Our shooting’s actually pretty consistent.”
Owens hopes schools come back next year and pay attention to the bright futures secured by previous participants.
“During the opening ceremonies, they showed two kids – one is at MIT, one is at Yale,” she said. “They both started off at FIRST Robotics, and they didn’t know anything about engineering, but now they’re studying engineering.
“One, in her 20s, is a Ph.D.”