GORHAM — Winning a robot race takes more than speed.

It also requires creativity, strategy and group decision making, say robotics competition enthusiasts.

“At first I didn’t get it,” said Chris Manderson of Yarmouth.

Manderson’s son, Ethan Peter, an eighth-grader at Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth, was one of about 60 students from 17 middle and high schools across the state competing at the Southern Maine VEX Tournament Saturday at the University of Southern Maine’s Hill Gymnasium. Manderson said it took some time to figure out all the complexities of the game, but once she did she began to enjoy it.

“I am pretty impressed,” Manderson said.

In its second year, the tournament tests the robot-building skills of Maine high and middle school teams during a series of races. The teams design, build and program their robots from kits, similar to Erector sets. The completed robots then must out-perform the competition in a series of challenges.

The event depends on a couple of dozen volunteers, including University of Maine students, acting as referees, judges and score keepers. The tournament was funded by a grant from Fairchild Semiconducter Corp., which operates a manufacturing site in South Portland.

Forming a robotics team can be fairly inexpensive compared to other extracurricular and athletic activities. Kathy Barber, coordinator of Saturday’s event and parent of a Cape Elizabeth robotics team member, said it takes only a couple of thousand dollars to equip a robotics team. However, other costs can quickly mount up. Last year, the Cape Elizabeth robotics team needed to raise $10,000 after making it to the world championships in Orlando, Fla.

The Spruce Mountain Area Robotics Team, which includes about 100 students from Jay and Livermore Falls, fields a FIRST robotics team. FIRST is a nonprofit organization that aims to encourage participation by young people in science and technology. The pricetag for participating in the FIRST program, founded by New Hampshire inventor Dean Kamen of Segway fame, is $10,000 to $12,000.

“I write a lot of grants,” said Spruce Mountain adviser Dan Lemieux.

Those involved in robotics competitions say it is addictive.

“It’s like Legos for high schoolers. It’s a cool way to mix a hobby with school,” said Matt Hawkins, a junior at North Yarmouth Academy.

Hawkins said his team gets together during free periods and lunch at school to prepare for the competition.

Every year the challenge changes. This year students had to build a robot that could dunk cylinders and balls into receptacles of varying heights. They program the robot to perform independently for 20 seconds and then move the robot by remote control for two minutes.

The robots emitted squeaks and whirs as they operated against a backdrop of rap music. Between bouts, competitors made adjustments to their machines on long tables that served as pit stops at the back of the gym.

The robot designs ranged from the simple to the complicated. A robot built by a Cape Elizabeth team, winners of a 2011 world championship design award, scooped up the balls and cylinders and deposited them into the goals with precision accuracy.

Others were still works in progress.

“Today our right side drive train is not working,” said Carter Hall, 14, a freshman at Yarmouth High School, which entered three robots in Saturday’s competition.

The North Yarmouth Academy team huddled over its creation between competitions, rushing to make adjustments after its motor fell off.

“You have to be quick on your feet,” said Hawkins.

The beauty of the tournament, said fans, is that participants gain valuable knowledge which they can use to perfect their designs the next time around. The North Yarmouth Academy team said this year’s design was based on their last year’s defeat. Even though things were not looking good midway through Saturday’s tournament, the North Yarmouth Academy team said they remained upbeat about their chances.

“We could come close,” said Katherine Roche, a junior.

In the end, it was two teams from Cape Elizabeth finishing first, followed by a combined Sanford and North Yarmouth team. By winning, the Cape Elizabeth team qualified for the national championship, to be held in Omaha, Neb., in March. The Cape Elizabeth High School team won the Excellence Award, which earned them a spot at the world championship in Anaheim, Calif., in April.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]