NEW YORK—Despite the rain and cold this past weekend, dozens of robots took the field to compete in the New York City FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) regional championship at the Javitz Center in Manhattan. The tournament tested the skills and determination of 48 teams of high school students who have spent the past several months building, programming and otherwise preparing their bots to face off in a friendly game of HotShot!

The objective of HotShot! was straightforward enough—build a robot from a kit of about 1,200 parts that can shoot plastic balls into goals in and around a 13.7-square-meter playing field. The winning teams were those that scored the most goals in each two-and-a-half minute round.

This being a tournament developed and hosted by Dean Kamen's FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization, the competition involved more than the ball game itself. The robots needed to meet a number of specifications: For instance, each had to be small enough to fit inside a 46-centimeter cube and operate autonomously for the first 30 seconds of each round. Meanwhile, the players were subject to a number of rules, as well: Each round was played two on two, with teams forming alliances that required their bots to work together to defeat the opposing alliance.

At the start of every round each of the four robots in play relied on software and sensors to track the location of their goal, line up shots and, hopefully, score some points—without any intervention from the human players. After the autonomous period, one student from each team used a device resembling a video game controller to drive their robot around the course. Their objective was to get the bot to hit a lever that would release more balls onto the square playing field, scoop up as many as possible, and shoot them into their team's goal (one goal is about half of a meter from the floor while the other goal is on the floor itself). During the final 30 seconds of the round, the robots lined up near one side of the field and shot as many balls as possible into a red or blue basket placed about one meter outside the playing field.

FIRST created the FTC competition in 2005 for 14- to 18-year-old students wanting hands-on experience with robotics, engineering and math. FTC teams vary in size (some with three members whereas others have more than a dozen). Each team has a coach, typically a teacher at the players' school. Some also have mentors who help the students work with the hardware, software and wireless technologies needed to succeed in competition. The robot kits cost about $1,000 and can be reused from year to year. Teams are also allowed to purchase additional motors and other parts on their own.

In designing the game each year, the planning committee takes into account what professional engineers are struggling with as they build robots for commercial or scientific use, according to FTC director Ken Johnson. "Targeting electronics, for example, is something that's being increasingly used in real-world robotics," he says, adding that the goal at the center of the playing field this year has an infrared beacon with which each team's robot can communicate via Bluetooth to help them target their shots.

"Compare this to a typical school-based system of teaching science and technology, where the teacher pushes information out to the students," Johnson says. "We're kind of turning that equation around and asking kids to reach behind the information to see how things work."

FTC organizers emphasize that the program's goals extend well beyond even technology. "We're talking a lot about robots, but that's not what this is all about at all," says Woodie Flowers, FIRST executive advisory board chairman and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus of mechanical engineering. "The robot is the campfire around which the campers gather."

The idea is to make technology real to students rather than something they simply read about. "What keeps kids in engineering? It's the hands-on experience," says Imani Fischer, coach of the B-BOTS team from Brooklyn's Benjamin Banneker Academy.

"This gives kids a social bonding experience that lets them collaborate around technology—something other than sports or pop music," says James Novotny, coach of the Livingston High School Lancers in New Jersey and technology department supervisor at the school.

There are 50 regional FTC tournaments throughout North America where teams compete for a chance to be one of the 100 teams in April's national championship tournament in Atlanta. FTC organizers extend some bids to international teams interested in competing, although most of the teams in Atlanta will be from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Pilot FTC events are taking place in China and India this year.

FTC is one of several robotics competitions offered by FIRST. Others include the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) for ages 14 to 18 and the FIRST Lego League (FLL) for ages six to 16. In FRC, which requires the most technical knowledge and is the most expensive to join, students build larger bots that compete on a larger playing field. FLL is divided into regular and junior divisions, where students build robots mostly from LEGO parts.

View a slide show of New York City FIRST FTC competitors