On Saturday, Gunn High School student Sheenah Kamineni sat quietly, her hands cradling her cheeks, as she looked onto the floor of the San Jose State University Event Center.
It was moments before the final round of the Silicon Valley regional of the FIRST Robotics Competition, and the pressure was on.
"It's just really intense," she said. "I'm worried about whether we can do this or not."
Music blared from loudspeakers, but the tension in the air created a feeling of stillness.
Then suddenly from the floor Gunn robotics-team members Ori Berger and Kamran Munshi yelled out Gunn's competition chant: "Ooui, ooui aacha. Ooui, ooui aacha. Eecha, aacha. Ooui, ooui aacha. Hey!"
The music ramped up louder and the final competition round began.
Gunn was one of 48 schools that had arrived at the San Jose State University Event Center two days earlier prepared for the biggest competition some students had ever experienced.
Though high school athletes are accustomed to going head-to-head with their peers -- and facing the rigors and pressure of competition -- the so-called "geeks" rarely get the chance.
"This is a big project," Gunn robotics teacher Bill Dunbar said. "They know they have to perform. They've got to complete this thing, and the deadlines are real."
Fortunately, he added, "They step up, and it's really nice to see."
FIRST, which stands for "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology," held its initial teen robotics competition in 1999, fostering a forum for what has become American high schools' newest contact sport. The competition has grown to more than 1,300 teams participating in 37 regionals worldwide, U.S. First Silicon Valley Regional Director Jim Beck said.
This year for the first time at least one school from every state in the nation will participate in FIRST competitions, according to the organization.
"I want to be in every school in the country," said founder Dean Kamen. "And we will get there."
Many industry leaders expect that some of these teenagers will become Silicon Valley's future multi-millionaires, following in the footsteps of Apple Computer's Steve Jobs, Google's co-founders Larry Paige and Sergey Brin, and now YouTube's hot shots Chad Hurley and Steve Chen.
"Students are more inclined to pursue engineering at the master's level and the Ph.D. level" as a result of robotics competitions, Mark Leon, NASA's director of education and the competition's announcer, said.
It's big money, too. Each year companies donate about $10 million to the competitions, Kamen said.
Gunn raises about $90,000 a year, according to Dunbar.
"There's a lot of emotion and, frankly, money. There's a lot at stake here," Dunbar said. Because Gunn receives very little money from the school, the students actively participate in writing grants and giving presentations to companies.
Palo Alto High, which also sent a team, made the $25,000 minimum fundraising goal, thanks to a generous parent of a student on the team, said the Vikings' robotics coach Doug Bertain.
Just as the sun began to rise last Thursday morning, Gunn High School Robotics Team Captain Zak Weiler went to school to help the team pack up its tools for the competition. The team's robot, "Roku," waited for them in a crate at San Jose State.
Roku was named after the Palo Alto music electronics company of the same name that was a major donor to the team.
"I hope we can do well and have something to be proud of for the rest of my life," Weiler said. "I hope that every part will work as we intended it to."
The day before, team members had dyed their hair bright flaming red, reflecting Gunn's school colors of red and black.
"It's just part of the team spirit we have, to set us apart from everybody else," student Russell Chou said.
Across town on Wednesday afternoon, Palo Alto High School students worked feverishly to put together a new "grabber" for their robot, "Thor."
"It's pretty exciting, the whole competition thing," team member Lauren Mitchell said.
The team took first place last year at the Las Vegas FIRST regional competition.
In total, about 70 tech-savvy teenagers from Gunn and Paly competed in the event this year. Castilleja School also sent a team.
The three-day competition began last Thursday with practice rounds -- although it really started six weeks earlier, when teams were allowed to start work on their robots.
The pressure on students to perform geared up Friday for the qualifying rounds and heightened during the finals on Saturday.
Gunn Principal Noreen Likens attended the robotics competition for the first time since the inception of the school's robotics team.
She noted the importance of the competition.
"It takes kids and encourages them. It makes them enthusiastic about math and science," she said.
According to Kurt Schaefer, a representative of Dreamworks, which sponsored Woodside High School: "I think robotics is great because it brings together a lot of different disciplines. Software, mechanics, electronics -- it really spans a lot of different engineering disciplines."
All have to come together for the robot to work, he said.
"So if the robot isn't working, it gives lots of real world examples of why the different disciplines are important."
At San Jose State, the stage was set on Thursday for the battle of the student engineers. In an atmosphere electrified with loud music by Green Day, Guns & Roses and hip hop artists, the students competed center stage in a ring the size of a racquetball court.
Five hundred of their peers were on hand to cheer and jeer from the stands. The teenagers came from schools that span the entire United States: from Massachusetts to Hawaii, and from California to Alaska.
The 48 schools had been assigned to two alliances: blue and red. Within each alliance, schools were grouped in teams of three.
The teams were awarded points when their robots placed three inflatable life-preservers in rows, either horizontally or stacked vertically. The teams also scored big bonus points when they lifted each others' robots off the ground using built-in ramps.
What makes the FIRST contest so difficult, team members said, is that the rules of the competition change from year to year. So the students must learn new methods of putting together a robot to meet the varying challenges.
The teenagers made use of computer-assisted design software like Autodesk, made geometric calculations, created animation and put their "bots" together.
"This is what we do the math for!" cheered announcer Leon, who dressed in a Hawaiian hula skirt and had hair dyed electric blue. "I've been around the world and done a lot of crazy things, but nothing compared to you guys!"
The students relished the intense atmosphere.
"I love it. It's a lot of fun," Viking's Team Captain Guy Davidson said. "You lose a lot of sleep hours for it. But it's fun. I don't think there's any better experience than coming here (and) watching what you worked on for a month and a half compete."
When he was not frantically managing the team, Davidson could be found bouncing to the music.
"You're on the field there; you might as well as have some fun -- dance around a bit; get pumped."
Behind the competition ring, swarms of students buzzed around their pits still sawing, fixing, drilling and hammering at their robots.
Thursday morning, the Gunn team faced problems with the controls and missed the first practice round.
"It's frustrating," one team member said. "Something always comes up. It always takes longer to go through this debugging thing."
"But we're working very hard. We're gonna do this!" Kamineni said.
By afternoon Gunn's robot had managed to score big and lifted spirits, but the 120-pound Roku broke down during a match.
"It's smoking!" student mechanic Ben Matzke cried out, grabbing his red hair.
"That's not good!" he said as he ran to fix the problem.
"It's a little stressed right now because we're having a little problem," Gunn team member Michael Froniewski said. "But it's fun."
The team managed to fix the robot in time for the next round.
"I'm confident as always that our team is going to do great. I have faith in the team; I have faith in the robot; I have faith in the driver," team member Jon Stein said.
After a slow start putting on the new grabber to Paly's Thor -- which was named after the Norse god of thunder and hearth -- the Vikings scored two points early on in the practice rounds.
"Yeah!" team members cheered.
"It's got good structural integrity," team member Nick Clayton said. "It's not going to break easily."
"It would take a really, really savage beating to hurt Thor," Davidson said.
"Ingenuity and creativity -- we take it to the extreme," Viking pit crew member Daniel Rahamin said.
But by the end of the day Thursday, Thor's grabber became inoperable. The Paly team also suffered a setback, getting flagged for being in the wrong zone at the wrong time. On Friday Thor's grabber problems continued.
"When the gripper breaks, and we gotta go back at night and redesign it, that's when the kids learn," Bertain said.
"They were tired last night. They had been up since 4 (or) 5 in the morning and had to go back last night and work till 10:30 p.m., get up this morning at 4 a.m. and finish the repairs on the gripper," he said. "You see these kids, and they're in the lab trying to figure out what to do -- that's when real learning takes place."
The Vikings suffered another violation after an opposing team rammed into Thor, pushing the grabber outside the game boundaries.
By mid-Friday Gunn made a major breakthrough in their scoring efforts, having been able to both place rings on the rack and drive up on a team member's ramp.
"Awesome!" the teens said as they high-five'd each other.
"I'm really happy," Dunbar said about the point-scoring effort. "It makes me emotional because these guys have worked so hard. Some of them have overcome a lot."
Joel Walmsley, who wore red contact lenses Saturday to match his blazing red hair, operated Roku in the competition.
"It feels more like operating a remote-controlled car," he said of Roku. But, he added, "The stakes are higher."
The event's theme, "Rack 'n' Roll," might have been renamed "Rock 'em, Sock 'em," as the robots repeatedly rammed into each other. Amid the bumping, crashing and pinning going on in the ring, the robot for Team 100 from Woodside High School got completely knocked over onto its side in one round, rendering it unable to score any more points.
"You've got large, powerful, dangerous robots in there," said software engineer Jerry Morrison from Google, which had sponsored several teams. "It is dangerous; you have to be careful."
Team 100 ultimately ranked second overall and received the General Motors Industrial Design Award.
Saturday morning Gunn managed to break into the top eight, but fell to 11th after losing a round. Nonetheless, Gunn got picked to move onto the quarter finals.
Palo Alto ranked last and sat out the rest of the competition.
The Gunn students seemed more nervous than excited about going up against the top-ranked teams.
"I am happy we're in the finals," team member Munshi said, but "we're doing an uphill battle."
Gunn student coach Ori Berger strategized with Alliance Team Captain Kramer Straube, from Sacred Heart Prep Robotics.
"Worry about scoring more than them," Berger offered as one strategy.
"Practice as much as possible getting on our ramp," Straube said.
The Gunn team won the first round and lost the second. The third round they had to win in order to advance to the semi-finals. But Roku got into one too many times, and ultimately their alliance team lost.
Though winning awards is nice, it's not everything, said Gunn pit crew member Arnav Shah.
"We made a really good robot," he said. "We got a lot of attention from other teams. As long as we cooperated with other teams well, and they complimented us, we felt like we were part of FIRST and that's all that matters."
"I've been waiting my entire life to do this kind of stuff. So this is awesome," he added.
For Ben Matzke, the team effort was a chance to build relationships.
"I have made a lot of friends through this program. It's really great team-bonding. We get to know each other very well, and we get sick of each other, too. It's just part of it. Words can't really describe it."
Kamineni agreed. "It's like a family."
Dunbar gathered the team outside after the final elimination round.
"I'm so proud of you," he said. "You were the underdog from the get-go.
"You never gave up. Sometimes perseverance pays off. You have my respect, and you have the respect of everyone in the stands," he said. "You can hold your heads high."
"So one last time!" Dunbar cheered. "Ooui, ooui aacha. Ooui, ooui aacha. Eecha, aacha. Ooui, ooui aacha. Hey!"
The Vikings also kept their spirits up.
"I think the kids learned the best lesson they could learn," Palo Alto High School Robotics parent coach Chris Tacklind said. "They had a beautiful 'bot and some great ideas, but they didn't pay attention to the details."
"We had a lot of really tough breaks," student Mike Trammiel acknowledged. But "we learned a lot from our mistakes. We should have a lot of fun in Vegas."
Because of how FIRST has set up its rules, Gunn will still go on to compete in the FIRST Championship final in Atlanta April 12-14. Palo Alto High School will compete in another FIRST regional in Las Vegas March 29-31.