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Picking a plastic triangle off of a hook and putting it on the floor doesn't sound like much of a sport, but imagine you had to do it without touching it. That's the goal of what's been called the ultimate mind sport in Las Vegas this weekend. For the first time Las Vegas is hosting the international high school student robotics competition. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.

ANNOUNCER: Come on out everybody watch our step at the gate.

PLASKON: Stepping into the Thomas and Mack center this weekend is a little different than usual. There is a ring full of triangles.

CROWD: Comon Team 25 woooooo!

PLASKON: Erik Sandgren is Dean of the Howard Hughs College of Engineering at UNLV and is supervising students as they get ready to compete.

SANDGREN: It is kind of like a combination between a rock concert and an athletic competition, be the time the finals are on Saturday the level of excitement builds and builds and builds.

PLASKON: 28 thousand high school students from 27 different countries received the same kit of parts, wires, electronics, and batteries 6 weeks ago.

SOUND: Building robots.

PLASKON: They lashed, bolted and melted the parts together to make big mechanical arms on wheels. Groups have competed in 30 events over 5 weeks. This is the last week before some will move on to the robotics super bowl in Atlanta in mid April. Sandgren is inspecting some of the vehicles before the competition this weekend.

SANDGREN: You find out that there are 38 different approaches to doing everything when they all started out with the same kit of parts.

PLASKON: He is standing among isles of students working on these robotic vehicles. Though it's a competition, building them takes a lot of cooperation, especially at the last minute. An announcer periodically barks out parts to share.

ANNOUNCER: Team 1159 needs a version of the IFI Version 11 Firmware. Team 1556 needs lithium grease.

PLASKON: The higher the number of the team, the longer they have been competing in the sport that started in 1992, called the First Robotics Competition. Christine Schneider from Verde Valley High School in Arizona represents one of the first teams, number 24 and knows the value of cooperation. She tells a group of students about the success of cooperation not only within a team, but across teams.

SCHNEIDER: They both built identical robots and they both went to competition and cheesy poofs took the nationals collaboration is the answer.

PLASKON: Down the isle some students are getting their first taste of the level of cooperation.

PLASKON: What do you want to have on your robot?

JOHNSON: Ha ha, fuzzy dice.


JOHNSON: Because we are here from Vegas so it is just appropriate.

PLASKON: Lisa Johnson in from Coronado High School. It's the first robot she has ever worked on. It's been tough.

JOHNSON: Figuring out what size the frame should be. We changed the frame at least a million times in the first eight weeks and then we had to make it even smaller just two days before. We had it too long to wide and too short and that was the big problem.

PLASKON: She says her competitors are not only helpful, but impressed that Coronado's first vehicle is made out of metal. Some students used wood to make their first robots she says. Other teams, such as one at Rancho High have had bigger problems in their first attempt at this event. Rancho's Assistant Principal Mary Scott says it's team is made up of low income students who have to work and even a homeless child.

SCHNEIDER: It is really important to him and this has made a connection for him and if he comes here every day, he comes every day because it is important to him. To not feel isolated will keep that student in school.

PLASKON: The team has faced some serious academic challenges. These students should be ready for high school proficiency exams, but some aren't familiar with fundamental concepts of Geometry, astounding the team's computer science teacher.

SCHNEIDER: He came in and he said I can't believe it they don't know what perpendicular is. It just never occurred to me that that geometry and actual electronics will help them.

PLASKON: While one purpose of the competition is academic, the other is to teach about traditional concepts in sports says Head Referee Gordon Bell.

BELL: We don't want a robot wars type environment, it is about teaching about engineering as well as teaching about gracious professionalism and that obviously is not going out and breaking another robot that kids have been working on for 5 months.

PLASKON: Teams drag their vehicles out on to the testing course. The purpose is to remotely control the vehicle to pick up red plastic triangles and strategically place them for points. Luckily these 130-pound vehicles are constrained by a heavy metal fence.

ANNOUNCER: And three, two and one.


PLASKON: The first test, is for the vehicles to be autonomous in other words, real robots - with no human control at all. And they crash. The second competition is for the students to take over with remote controls. At that point these remote controlled vehicles of colorful wires and flashing lights spring into action, arms reaching for red plastic triangles, some with gloved mechanical hands. They have little control, but do succeed in picking up the plastic triangles and scoring points.

SOUND: Crash and Cheering

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

TAG: The ultimate mind sport takes place at UNLV's Thomas and Mac Center Friday through Saturday and is free to the public.