Teams of budding engineers and robotics enthusiasts recently squared off in New York City at the FIRST (For Inspiration, Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics "Lunacy" Competition, pitting their robots against one another in the hope of becoming one of 344 teams to move on to the championship round next month in Atlanta. (The nickname Lunacy is a nod to the 40th anniversary of NASA's moon landing.)

Sixty-six teams of high school students from the New York City and New Jersey as well as international competitors from the U.K. and Brazil matched wits and engineering talent in Manhattan's Jacob K. Javits Center as they vied for six spots in the championship tournament. (In all, 40 regional competitions are taking place between February and early April across the U. S., Canada and Israel.)

In New York, the competition consisted of bouts between two teams (each with three robots) on the slippery floor of a 54- by 27-foot (16.5- by eight-meter) arena, designed to symbolize the kind of physics challenges engineers faced when they designed the original moon lander.

Slide Show: Lunacy Battles

The goal was for each team to unload cargoes of spongy, watermelon-size balls into trailers hitched to their opponents' robots (each robot on the floor was fitted with a trailer). Six weeks before the competition the teams received identical crates of parts—driver and robot control and wireless communications systems, motors, pneumatic activators for moving arms or shooters, and slick wheels, along with other components—but sans instruction manuals. Teams could spend up to $3,500 to outfit their machines with additional parts, and part of the challenge was to raise the funds, so each team's actual budget varied widely. They also sought mentors—either teachers in their schools or local volunteers with day jobs as engineers in places like NASA, Boeing, IBM and GE.

At the competition, teams needed to think in terms of offense and defense. Many of the robots featured a chute for scooping up balls from the arena floor. The balls were then mechanically transferred to a basin up top where the robots could spit them into an opponent's trailer. Other robots roved the floor collecting spare balls to be used against opponents. The robots were required to drive themselves autonomously for the first 15 seconds of each match, after which team members were able to control them via remote control.

The event emphasized problem solving and teamwork, but FIRST's president Paul Gudonis also pointed out that "the whole idea is we want to make it cool to be smart."

FIRST, which was founded in 1992 by Dean Kamen (inventor of the two-wheeled Segway transporter), has boosted science and engineering education in schools. According to a 2005 study by Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., FIRST participants are 65 percent more likely to go to college and four times as likely to study engineering as their peers with similar backgrounds in math and science. This year, the program attracted $9.7 million in college scholarships.