A new breed of athlete took over the hardwood at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Wells Fargo Sports Complex Saturday: robots and the high-school-age students who designed, built and engineered them.

Thirty-two teams from communities statewide – places ranging from Hoonah to Kasigluk to Fairbanks – participated in the daylong FIRST Tech Challenge.

The initial field was pared down to 12 teams, which were formed into a quartet of three-team "alliances" to square off Saturday afternoon.

Using handheld remote controls, they guided robots in a confined space and attempted to complete tasks stacking blocks.

Competitors stood calmly before last-minute preparations and engineering for an intense two-and-a-half minute competition.

“I’m seeing a passion for science and technology and engineering and math being sparked in a lot of these students, and not even just in STEM fields,” said Elliott Morris, a UAA mechanical engineering student who also competes in FIRST Tech at the collegiate level.

“There are so many different fields being represented here,” Morris said. “These kids are learning marketing and they are learning interpersonal communication skills, just so many things they can use in their future.”

Wade Roach, a science teacher at Dimond High School, had to split his allegiances between his students at Dimond and his son Orion -- a senior at East High who was competing in the semifinal competition.

Regardless of who competes, Roach said he enjoys watching a student’s passion come to life during the event.

“What excites me about FIRST robotics is that it gets the kids excited about STEM,” Roach said. “It gets them involved in something with lots of positive outcomes. It kind of takes from the playbook of traditional sports. It takes something that’s just as fun and exciting, but they learn something along the way.”

Orion Roach said while he loves the competition, a winning robot starts months in advance. Most of the work takes place in schools or student garages the younger Roach affectionately calls “nerd caves”.

“The engineering of the robot is probably the biggest part,” he said. “If you don’t have a good robot, you aren’t going to be able to compete as well.”

FIRST is the acronym: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The Juneau Economic Development Council coordinates FIRST activities in Alaska.

Teams from Cordova, Eagle River and East High School advanced to the regional competition next month in Spokane, Wash.

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