Haley O'Brien jumps to the sideline to adjust one of the mechanized arms of the toaster-sized robot. She takes off a plastic piece, her 10-year-old hands fumbling where surgery is required.
"Just go, just go!" says a teammate.
The robot, a mini-bulldozer made of LEGOs and a tiny computer, charges forward with a whirring sound. It scoops up a gray ball and dumps it three feet away on the play mat.
The kids give each other high-fives. One hisses a triumphant "Yes!"
The team's machine was one of 50 robots that faced off Saturday at the annual Alaska robotics competition for youth 9 to 14 years old. The event at Dimond High School required teams to collaborate to build a robot using a standardized kit of parts. Its real goal, though, was to get students of all ages enthused about science and engineering.
"I can program the robot and it does these really cool things. It's fun," said Haley, who attends Kilbuck Elementary School in Bethel.
In Alaska, where scores on state tests show elementary and high school kids struggling in the sciences, educators hope the growing popularity of events like this can make a difference.
"It's real important early to involve students in science-related activities," said Haley's coach, Jeff Blevins, an administrator with the Bethel-area school district and father of one of Haley's teammates. "It gives them a feeling they can be a scientist."
Wade Roach, a former biology-turned-engineering teacher at Dimond, says he's seen a difference since he introduced robotics about seven years ago. The demand has soared. In the weeks leading up to the competition, he had teens who showed up every day after school for three hours, then came back all day on Saturdays. This year, the school even piloted an elective for-credit class in robotics because of the popularity.
The students, he says, are learning multiple branches of engineering -- mechanical, civil, electrical.
The Alaska Robotics Education Association's competition organizer Dave Patterson, clad in a kilt, was manning the floor Saturday, directing the buzz of some 500 kids around him like an air-traffic controller.
He says events like this -- more hands-on and fun than classroom lectures -- are picking up the slack of traditional science curriculum. He says this as a man from outside the school system -- he's retired military and still works at Fort Richardson as a civilian range officer. What he sees is from the perspective of a parent.
"Nationally, people are asking why we don't have better high schools. Why our graduation rates are so low," he said.
Alaska has one of the worst graduation rates and dropout rates in the country.
Patterson says the answer is that "we have failed to show students the relevancy of why we are teaching them. By teaching them in this way, they have a clear understanding of why they need computer skills, math skills. They get excited about education and they go after it."
He says kids pick up skills they don't fully realize they are learning: computer programming, math, hands-on problem solving, teamwork.
Anchorage School District superintendent Carol Comeau showed up Saturday morning to watch the frenzy of activity with other bystanders and parents. She beamed as she watched the kids' excitement over their programmed robots. Some kids wore war paint. Some jumped up and down. No one seemed to mind the 9 a.m. Saturday start time.
"We have to change the way we teach," she said.
Back at Haley's table, the robot makes a wrong turn on the play mat.
"OK. We lost that one," Blevins says. "Grab it! Grab it!"
"Line it up," says one girl, who looks like she's teetering between anxiety and joy.
A boy picks it up and aims the robot toward the obstacles. It buzzes forward.
Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.