March Madness for the mind


It's known as the only varsity sport where every participant can turn pro.While the month of March is typically known for some of the best basketball of the season, there's another sport stealing the spotlight.Hundreds of students are competing this weekend in St. Joseph, Michigan in the Robotics District Competition sponsored by Whirlpool.Fans filled the bleachers at St. Joseph High School Field House gym Friday.There is an announcer, guys in striped black and white shirts, and even a jumbotron.The teams wear uniforms and use large red balls to try to score points.It looks and sounds a lot like a typical March Madness basketball game.But this is robotics, a unique blend of technology, engineering, teamwork and flare and yes, even mascots."Crazy is a good word," said Gabe Appleton, sporting blue hair.Appleton is a junior at Marquette High School in the Upper Peninsula. His team drove 10 hours to compete.Teams are given a 120 pound box full of motors, gears, sensors and other parts and have six weeks to build a robot that can pick up a ball and score points by throwing it through these posts. Players wear hardhats and protective eyeglasses."You've got this spirit of cooperation," explained Gabe. "People on the arena will fight to the death, but when you get off, they'll give you a spare part if you need it."More than 800 students from 39 schools around Michigan are competing this weekend. The winners earns points towards the state competition."There's anticipation. There's who's gonna win. There's mystery. There's drama, suspense. There's passion like every sport," said technology superstar Dean Kamen.Kamen founded Robotics Competition 25 years ago and attended the opening ceremonies, surprising the crowd.Kamen is the well-known inventor of the Segway Human transport and the IBOT battery-powered wheelchair."We're either going to develop the next generation of innovators, inventors, technologists," explained Kamen, "or this country will slide.""I went out and found sponsors," said Kacy Craft, a senior at Berrien Springs High School and business manager of the robotics team."My seeing all these other girls out here helps a lot. We can do so much. We can do just as much as they can and a lot of girls don't realize that," smiled Craft.So, no matter if they lose their brackets, these students say just being a part of the game makes them winners."Every year I get so excited for this. There's just nothing like it," said Appleton.The competition continues Saturday at the Field House at St. Joseph High School from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.The state Robotics Championship Competition is in two weeks at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.Michigan has 278 robotics teams, more than any other state.