BIDDEFORD — A group of Cape Elizabeth middle school students had just won a robotics match, but they weren’t happy.

Their computer-driven aluminum robot wasn’t working exactly as it should – its forklift-style arms weren’t lifting in unison, so it wasn’t grabbing things efficiently. The four boys whisked the robot to a cafeteria at Biddeford High School – known during Saturday’s robotics tournament as “the pits” – and made some tweaks before heading back into the gym for more competition.

Matthew Leighton and Evan Gebhart of Cape Elizabeth Middle School carry their robot “Turtle” off to make some repairs after a successful qualifying round at the VEX Robotics Maine State Championships. Staff photo by Jill Brady

At the time, the team ranked in the top three out of about 50 teams in the Maine State VEX Robotics Championship. They were vying for a chance to go to the world championships in Louisville, Kentucky, later this spring. So the pressure was mounting.

“This has been our goal all year. It would be the ultimate,” said Matthew Leighton, an eighth-grader on the Cape Elizabeth team. “If we can make (the world championships) as middle school students, it could make a lot of other kids interested in robotics, and that would be great.”

Leighton and his teammates accomplished their goal, earning a trip to the world championships. They competed with more than 200 students, from middle school through high school, jammed into the Biddeford High School gym Saturday for the daylong tournament. Hundreds of spectators watched from the bleachers.

Competition began at 9 a.m. and lasted until early evening. In between, each team tested the speed and agility of their aluminum or steel robots by competing in two-minute sessions of a game called “In the Zone.” Four robots at a time competed against each other, trying to move and stack different size cones in a designated area. Ten points were earned for big cones, 2 points for small ones.

Each robot worked a little differently, with various moving parts to push, scoop or carry the cones. Some looked like little forklifts, others used fabric webbing attached to movable metal arms to scoop up cones. Many of the students have been competing in VEX Robotics competitions since October, so they had plenty of time to tweak and refine their machines. Nevertheless, some teams found themselves needing to further refine their creations and techniques throughout Saturday’s competition.

Kyle Collin of Mount Desert Island High School makes repairs to his team’s robot during the VEX Robotics Maine State Championships at Biddeford High School. Staff photo by Jill Brady

“We’re ranked about 24th right now, but the problem isn’t the robot, really. I just needed more practice with the controls, so I think the rest of the way we’ll do better,” said Matthew Southard, 15, a 10th-grader at Hampden Academy, near Bangor. “What’s fun for me is starting with nothing and making something, and then using it to compete.”

The competition Saturday was like a sporting event, in that each match had a college student calling the play-by-play action over a loudspeaker. And there were referees – college engineering students – in striped shirts making sure no rules were violated. One difference from, say, a basketball tournament was that some schools sent several teams.

When the championships were done Saturday, six teams had impressed the judges enough to earn spots at the world championships, including teams from Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, Mount Desert Island High School, Hampden Academy, Cape Elizabeth High School, John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Cape Elizabeth Middle School.

The teams picked for the world championships at the end of the day weren’t picked by the judges on scores alone. Design, engineering and strategy figured into the judges’ decisions as well because the real purpose of the competition isn’t winning, but learning.

“They have to make decisions under pressure here. It’s hands on,” said Marc Couture, a volunteer judge from Saco and co-creator of the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation. “I’ve been involved with robotics for 20 years and you see a level of motivation out here that you don’t necessarily see in the classroom.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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Twitter: RayRouthier

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