Small metal robots squeaked around the floor of a gymnasium at the Johns Hopkins University on Saturday as spectators watched from the bleachers.
Baltimore school students used controllers to guide the robots, making them stack plastic cones as they raced against the clock. The kids had built the robots and were competing in the annual Hopkins Robotics Cup, vying for a chance at a statewide competition.
“I like coming up with ideas and actually executing them onto a robot,” said 14-year-old Xitlanie Roache.
An eighth-grader at Cross Country Elementary/Middle School, Roache hopes to pursue an engineering career. She got interested in robots when her sixth-grade math teacher asked her if she wanted to take part in the robotics program.
On Saturday, she was among hundreds of kids at Hopkins for the competition. Fifty-five teams from 25 city public schools took part, ranging from elementary to high school.
“They love the competitiveness of it,” said Margaret Hart, STEM outreach adviser for the Center for Educational Outreach at Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
Many of the students enjoy the problem-solving aspects of building and programming robots, Hart said.
The program also helps student focus on working together as a team, said Christine Newman, assistant dean for engineering education outreach at the Hopkins engineering school.
City schools reached out to Hopkins just over six years ago to help create a citywide robotics league, Hart said.
Teammates Saria Malik, 12, and Leslie Reyes, 11, both sixth-graders at Cross Country Elementary/Middle, explained that they like different aspects of robotics. Malik likes programming and Reyes likes building.
The students, whose team was dubbed the RoboEagles, put in “hours and hours” of work before the competition, said Malik’s mother, Yvonne Carter, who volunteers with the team.
“So much goes into it,” Carter said.
Glorietta Friend cheered on her son 12-year-old Isiah, a sixth-grader at Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School.
“He just loves taking stuff apart and putting it together,” she said. “He’s just one of those kids that, he doesn’t need the directions… He loves to build.”
Isiah strapped on a pair of safety goggles before he and his team headed to compete.
As the clock wound down for their round, Dan Murphy, the math instructional lead at Isiah’s school, coached him from the sidelines.
“Isiah, 35 seconds, get ready to park,” Murphy said.
The team practices twice a week. Robots give the students “a real-world connection to problem solving,” Murphy said.
Isiah and his teammate Raymon Hayden, also 12, both have the same answer when asked what they like about robots.
“Everything,” the boys said.
Joshua Gabrielse, science coordinator for city schools, said robotics can show students what they can do — and get them excited about engineering.
"It can be incredibly life-changing,” he said. “It isn’t for everybody. But we want to give kids the opportunity and the exposure.”