The gymnasium was packed full of spectators for a competition between 80 students.
But there were no athletes shooting baskets or practicing layups. Instead, there were metallic robots — controlled by students racing to complete tasks faster and more efficiently than others.
Inside the gym were overhead cameras projecting the action onto a big screen, to the delight of the cheering crowd.
Both Julian and middle schools had teams of 40 students, each taking turns on various rounds.
After falling behind early, Brooks ended up pulling off a strong effort in the later rounds to finish winners by a margin of 152-116 at the Feb. 5 event.
Thanks to funds from the Oak Park Education Foundation, the middle schools were able to buy and build an arena this year to offer a fully sanctioned Vex Robotics Competition, with top teams from both sides heading out the following weekend for a regional tournament in Batavia.
“This was the first year this contest was pretty close to what it actually looks like at a national level, which is pretty awesome,” said Tim Walsh, who coaches Julian’s team and hosts weekly Robotics Club meetings in his science classroom.
Before the Feb. 12 Batavia competition, Walsh encouraged his team to improve their remote control driving skills — a big part of the loss to Brooks a week earlier.
And just building a good robot is not enough, he said. Being able to control it efficiently is equally important.
As with many traditional sports, Walsh said students in the robotics group can develop important social skills.
“They’re working on a goal, and they have to work with teams of four, so they have to learn how to collaborate and work together for a common goal,” said Walsh. “For middle school students, that’s often a challenging thing.”