NAMPA — Teams from Idaho and from across the country and Mexico are at the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa this week competing with robots that operate on codes designed by high school students.

The Idaho FIRST Robotics Competition Regional, which started Thursday and continues through Saturday, is now in its fourth year, aimed at giving high schoolers an opportunity to learn engineering and computer-programming skills.

The competition is referred to as “Sport for the Mind” because the robots compete with the code that team members create. There are referees, scorekeepers and a 500-page rule book that changes every year.

“The rules are very secretive until they’re released,” said team mentor Alex Mikhalev, a former high school robotics team member from Timberline High School in Boise. He’s moved on to studying engineering at UCLA.

“I was able to get an internship at HP,” he said, “which gave me an edge on my college applications.”

In the competition, teams are given six months to complete a robot, and after the six months, it must be sealed and put away until the day of competing. Teams are given a few hours to adjust their robot after the game is revealed.

“It teaches you to be competitive in a healthy manner and to stay calm in hectic situations,” Mikhalev said.

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Three main tents fill the Idaho Center. There’s a practice area where teams can perform test runs before competing. There’s a pit stop, similar to a racetrack, where teams can perform repairs. A spare parts section is available to supply teams with metal, tape, glue, or more specialized pieces for their robots.

“Expensive parts have to be vetted to make sure it doesn’t give someone an advantage,” said Paul Rohwer, spare parts manager.

This year brought in 15 teams from Idaho, eight from California, and individual teams from Florida, Washington, Illinois and Mexico City, competition spokeswoman Brenda Hodes said.

Everyone is competing to win in order to move on to the world championship in Houston April 17-20. Not everyone moves on to nationals, but the experience from the competition opens doors to scholarships, internships and the opportunity to work alongside professional engineers.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to compete with ... upper-level teams,” Nadia Ortiz told the Idaho Press in Spanish. Her team came from the private high school Universidad TecMilenio in Mexico City to put their robotic skills to the test.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1989 and based in New Hampshire, according to the competition’s website. Its aim is to increase K-12 involvement in science and technology with real-world challenges, such as building robots.

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