On March 9, I attended an event at the Valley View Casino Center (when did it stop being the San Diego Sports Arena?). It had all the makings of a high-stakes competition: an arena bursting with cheering fans, cheerleaders, mascots, banners. There was one variation, though: The competitors on the floor? They were robots.

Science and engineering have always been cool, but maybe not to all students. But this event was a great example of how engineering has the potential to be on the same coolness level as sports at school.

I was there to see some of my students compete at the San Diego Regional FIRST Robotics Competition. FIRST is an organization that seeks to develop students’ engineering skills. The competition on Saturday lived up to FIRST’s billing as an event that “[combines] the action of a major sporting event such as football and the rhythm of a rock and roll concert.”

All of the schools at the competition fielded robots that were designed and built by students. The robots were impressive: They had to be able to roam the floor of the arena and dodge other robots, they had to launch Frisbees at a distant target and they had to be able to scale a three-level pyramid.

Here’s an example from one school’s team:

YouTube video

What struck me, aside from how inventive the robots were, was the competition’s sporting event vibe. Like a sporting event, it lent an atmosphere of excitement to engineering, making it accessible to a wider variety of students. Granted, I don’t know whether most of the robotics competitors are valued in their own schools as highly as athletes, but I do know that the robotics students from my school represent a broad section of our student body. Our team included athletes, students who consider themselves “math and science kids,” as well as those who prefer the humanities and excel in English, history and the arts.

Having a broad cross-section of students turn out for a robotics event is a matter of school culture, which is much more difficult to address than, say, improving test scores (which itself is no small task). However, it’s great to see that some schools can nurture this appreciation of the sciences. As a history and government teacher, I tip my hat to those science teachers and volunteers out there for a job well done!

Oscar Ramos is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow him on Twitter @OscarRamosSD or email oscar.ramos.blog@gmail.com.

Oscar Ramos is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow him on Twitter@OscarRamosSD or email oscar.ramos.blog@gmail.com.

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