LEWISTON — During a lunch break between rounds at the FIRST Robotics Competition on Saturday, a team of five students from Gray-New Gloucester High School crowded around their robot.

The team – using zip ties to help fix the robot after accidental contact with another during a qualification match, and over the sound of buzzing drills and whirring machinery – said they were pleased with their robot’s performance.

“It’s been doing decently well, actually,” said Dylan Crawford, a freshman. “It’s exceeded our expectations.”

Thirty-two high school robotics teams from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut competed at the Androscoggin Bank Colisée. During the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition, “alliances” vied against one another to judge whose robots could best perform tasks.

After final rounds on Saturday afternoon, The Outliers, a team from the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science charter school in Portland, came out on top in the three-day event.

“We came in the number one qualifying team and won the event,” said Jonathan Amory, the lead engineering mentor for The Outliers.

“We love playing in Maine,” Amory said. “It is our favorite event because it is our home event. That means a lot for us.”

The Outliers have the No. 2 rank in New England, just below Air Strike, a team from Newport, Rhode Island. There are about 26 Baxter students on the team.

The Outliers now head to the New England regional finals this coming week at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts. If they do well enough, they could qualify for the world championships in Detroit, Michigan, at the end of April.

Baxter students made an alliance with teams from Bonny Eagle High School in Standish and a school in Connecticut to win this year’s challenge, Amory said. B.E.R.T., the team from Bonny Eagle, is ranked sixth in New England and has partnered with Baxter in other years, he added.

The Outliers were one of only 23 teams to win all six excellence in engineering awards this year, Amory said. Almost 3,800 teams compete in First internationally.

‘SCOUTING’ FOR ALLIANCES

Owen Wilkins watches the Spruce Mountain robot pick up its cargo during the FIRST Robotics Competition at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston on Saturday. Sun Journal photo by Andree Keh

At lunch Saturday, teams hustled around a “pit” area in the back of the Colisee, where each team kept a station filled with power tools and technology, fixing parts, and “scouting” for alliances. Getting picked for an alliance is a bit like dodge-ball in gym class: High-ranking teams pick a roster that would do well based on prior performances. After the qualification matches, those not picked by a team in the top eight were sent home.

Adam Dustin and George Holt, seniors at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, showed a robot, complete with an air-powered lift and a carbon fiber system. As builders, they make sure everything is good to go with their robot. As crowd favorites, they were expected to do well moving forward.

“We’ve done well,” Holt said. “We’ve had a few issues – our robot’s running at full potential.”

The SMARTIES, the Spruce Mountain High School robotics team from Jay, were selected by the third-ranked team, and moved on to the finals.

Spruce Mountain robotics team director Dan Lemieux said that in his 36th year of teaching, “we do not learn the interpersonal skills anywhere else. You’re building a $5,000 robot every year, you’re programming it, all cutting-edge technology. They don’t make it easy. The games are not easy, the programming is not easy, and the robots are not easy. This is real-world engineering.”

The program starts fundraising for the upcoming competition season in the fall, and the build season starts the first weekend in January. Each team has six weeks to build a robot. When those six weeks are up, they have to “bag it,” meaning it can’t be touched until the competition season starts.

“The impact on the kids that participate in it is tremendous,” Lemieux said. “The majority (of team members) have gone to four-year schools, and the majority of them have gone to a STEM-related career path, with lots of engineers. Orono should send me a check, they really should. The amount of engineers we’ve sent up there, it’s usually three or four a year.”

Sarah Delaney has three children on the SMARTIES team. Delaney is also a mentor, and said that without the experience on the robotics team, her daughter Amber, a junior at the University of Maine majoring in engineering, might not have gone into a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field.

“The oldest one is going in on mechanical engineering because she loved robotics and she never thought of it before,” Delaney said.

She said the robotics program can change students’ lives.

“It’s not about the robots. It’s about learning to work with people, learning to work through adversity,” Delaney said.

Andrea Harvey and Steve Nystrom, robotic team coaches and teachers at Gray-New Gloucester High School, agreed.

“Things go bad, things get broken, Nystrom said. “This year, our very first competition, we unbagged it, and the first thing we did was drive it right off the table. After some expletives, we said that ain’t getting us anywhere,  and then we rebounded. You got a flat tire? I guess you got to walk home – or you could just fix the flat.”

And, no matter the results of the competition, Nystrom said he couldn’t be happier with his students.

“All the things you want as a teacher, a coach and mentor, they are doing it.”

Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Staff Writer Peter McGuire contributed to this report.