Inside Madera South High School’s gym, a fierce competition Sunday kept supporters cheering from the bleachers, waving pom-poms and shouting chants.
It wasn’t a basketball game — it was robotics.
Madera South hosted the Central Valley Regional FIRST Robotics Competition Friday through Sunday, showcasing robots built and operated by 49 high school teams from Arizona to Hawaii, including eight from the Fresno area. The competition brought out around 4,500 people.
On the gym floor, competitors manned their robots from opposite ends. The game was Recycle Rush, played by two alliances of three robot teams each. Robots scored points by stacking tote boxes on platforms, adding round recycling bins to the top and discarding pool noodles inside.
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One of the teams competing was from Madera High School. Alan Hollman, principal of Madera High, started its robotics team in 2003. This year, he said, more than 200 students took the school’s intro to engineering class. Hollman said the competition gives students a real-world experience and promotes 21st century science, technology, engineering and math skills.
The participants also get college and career opportunities from companies that are recruiting young talent to replace an aging work force. JBT FoodTech, a company that manufactures food processing equipment and sponsored the competition, is offering Central Valley students 10 internships per year for the next four years.
Hollman said the regional competition, which Madera has hosted since 2012, costs around $100,000 and is sponsored by companies including Pacific Gas & Electric and Google. He said it’s the only competition nationally that doesn’t charge participants for the venue, which is provided by the school district.
Teams participate in as many regional competitions as they can afford, giving them ample chances to gain experience. Winners advance to the FIRST Robotics World Championship in St. Louis, Missouri in April. The next regional competitions will be in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Ventura.
Madera High’s team, called MadTown Robotics, includes 30 students and five volunteer mentors. Team members worked for six weeks starting in January to build their robot, named ETR12.
George Martin, 17, a senior co-captain, said being on the team taught him about tools, the engineering process, how to talk to sponsors and computer-assisted design. He hopes to study mechanical engineering in college next year.
“I knew I wanted to be an engineer,” he said, “This kind of narrowed it down.”
Last year, MadTown made it to the final round in the regional competition and came close to beating the world champions from San Jose. This year they allied with the Davis Senior High School and San Jose Bellarmine College Preparatory School teams, winning the regional competition and securing their place at the World Championship.
Madera Unified School District Superintendent Ed Gonzalez said robotics is an after-school program at Madera High and as of this year an elective class in the district’s three middle schools. He hopes to expand it to all of the elementary schools.
Gonzalez said robotics is important in an agriculture-heavy community like Madera because technology can, for example, help with water storage, access or desalination.
“Madera wants to be considered a focal point for the integration of agriculture with technology,” he said. “It’s a real game changer.”