By Julie Harris

The Weekly

HAMPDEN, Maine — Hampden Academy will be humming with technology when 50 high school and middle school  teams ranging from Biddeford to Limestone compete in the Maine VEX Championship 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18.

Robotics teams from across the state have been competing since October to earn a spot in the state championship to compete for a berth in the VEX World Competition to be held in April in Louisville, Kentucky. The top seven teams from the state championship will go to Kentucky. One of those teams will be exclusively middle school students.

Qualification rounds begin at 9 a.m. and elimination rounds begin at approximately 2 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.

The Robotics Institute of Maine’s seven qualifying tournaments held throughout the state have attracted more than 1,000 students comprising 97 teams, which have been building, strategizing and programming their robots to compete in this year’s game named “Starstruck.”

“Competitive robotics brings together engineering, programming, leadership skills and project management in an exciting and fun format,” said RIM Director Karen Giles in a press release. “We hope to inspire these students to ultimately help fill the current gap in Maine’s technical workforce.“

The game incorporates specific actions on which teams are scored. The teams strategize how to maximize the points they receive, and then build their robots to their strategies. They are allowed to adjust the robot over the course of the competition season to increase functionality and competitiveness, according to Kathy Barber of Robotics Institute of Maine.

This year’s game, Starstruck, is played on a 12-by-12-foot field. Alliances of two teams are randomly selected to play a 2- minute match. Each match begins with a 15 second autonomous mode in which pre-programmed commands written by the students are executed, followed by a 1:45-minute Student Driver Mode. The objective is to score more than the other Alliance by placing stars and cubes within certain zones, and by hanging robots on a hanging bar.

The game is fast paced with major scoring changes happening quickly, Barber said.

She said a new game is introduced every April at the World Championship, which usually necessitates teams building different robots because of the new skill set required.

Qualifying tournaments have been held at Biddeford High School, Cape Elizabeth High School, John Bapst, Hall-Dale, Greely HIgh School, Erskine Academy, and Lincoln Academy. Teams had to play in one or more of these competitions and perform to a specific level to earn a spot at the State Championship at Hampden Academy, Barber said.

The school teams can range from one student to an average of 3-4 students. Most schools that have been competing for a while have numerous teams. Some teams are exclusively high school or middle school students, but many teams — especially when robotics competition is new to the school — have a mix of students on their teams.

Depending on the students and the school, some teams begin to design and build their robots over the summer, while others wait until school starts.

Director Giles shared a quote from a competitor from last year that she felt summed it up for the students.

“If it weren’t for robotics, I would never have met the people I did and have the experiences I did. Robotics has been a family to me,” said Catherine Trojecki, Hampden Academy, about competitions last year.

Barber said Black Bear Robotics at University of Maine and UM’s College of Engineering, in addition to volunteers, have been instrumental in helping RIM put on these events. Many of the UM students had competed in VEX events when they were in high school.

RIM is a non-profit dedicated to engaging more Maine students in competitive robotics as a way to inspire them toward studies and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields.