Robot battles are ruthless.
That's what students from four local high schools discovered in the city's first official regional robotics competition, which drew more than 300 students from as far south as southern California and as far north as the Central Valley.
In the Frontier Titan Quest Robotics Tournament, 32 teams designed and built robots and then navigated them through a series of tasks for which they earned points.
The remote-controlled robots used front-end loaders to scoop up small beanbags and deposit them on floor squares, in elevated troughs, or on still higher ledges on a pole. The more difficult the placement, the more it was worth. Certain colors of bags also were more valuable, sparking epic battles for the coveted yellow ones. Success was precarious, though, because rivals could knock hard-won sacks off their perch if no defenders were there to guard them.
None of the six teams from Bakersfield emerged victorious, but two -- Bakersfield and Frontier high schools -- made it to the semi-finals.
Poway High School, from Poway, ultimately won the tournament's Excellence Award based on robot performance and other factors such as sportsmanship.
Poway will go on to compete in the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation's world championships in Anaheim in April.
Frontier senior Jennifer Grossbard, 18, said she was still glad she came.
"I want to be an engineer when I grow up, so this seemed like a good thing to try," she said. "I really like that it's difficult, but there's a lot of teamwork."
Students were clearly getting into the competition. Team members shouted directions and warnings to drivers and converged on their machines to make improvements or repairs between rounds.
BHS freshman Knox Borges, 14, was proud that the conveyor belt on his team's machine successfully kept sacks on the move, but bemoaned that the sacks tended to fall off when the angle was too steep.
He wasn't beating himself up, though.
"We just built it in the past two weeks," he said.
Parents and other well wishers in the audience willed the young people on. Spectators cheered when a "sack attack" went well and groaned when a robot froze or a sack fell or got knocked down.
The tournament was a valuable resource for exposing young people to engineering, said Frontier teacher and STEM Club advisor Kenelee Henderson.
"As a science teacher, one of my concerns is that I'll have gifted students, but they won't pursue math or science careers because they think it's boring," she said. "We wanted to do this tournament to show them that you can do some really cool, fun things with math and science if you have the skills."
The city sent six teams from four schools to the tournament, which was held in the Frontier High School gymnasium. Bakersfield and Frontier high schools each sent two teams, and Highland and Golden Valley high schools sent one, each.
A-C Electric's Automated Control and Technical Services Division provided a $5,000 grant to help pay for the tournament. The foundation and Vex Robotics provided circuit boards, wiring and other parts used to build the robots, worth thousands of dollars in and of themselves.
Event organizers reached out to the local community for help with referees, scoring and judging. A-C Electric, Chevron and Haliburton were just a few of the companies that sent volunteers.
Haliburton engineer John Goueth, one of the referees, said he used to compete in robotics tournaments as a child, and wanted to support the effort.
"I think it's important to see what these young minds have to offer and give them a little push," he said.
Tom Henderson of A-C Electric was the tournament's main organizer. He joked that he'd grown a lot more gray hair since putting on the inaugural event, but hopes it will continue for years to come.
"Just looking around and seeing how much the kids are enjoying it, it's been great," he said. "When they build the thing and it takes off and it actually does what it's supposed to do, they just about fall over."