NASHUA - Participants, parents and fans wore team jerseys and cheered the successes of the FIRST robotics competitors Saturday, a display of admiration once reserved for those who excelled on the field, the court or the pitch.
"It's definitely growing at our school," Alison Blanchard, a Pelham High School junior and member of the school's robotics team, said of the program's status. "We're kind of like the geek squad, but it's definitely growing. We're on our way. Our trophy is in our sports award cabinet at school, which is pretty awesome. We're starting to get there."
The district competition at Nashua High School South on Saturday continued the FIRST competitive approach to learning about science, technology, engineering and mathematics that began in New Hampshire three decades ago and spread across the country. The program helps build the STEM disciplines to which schools devote an increasing amount of resources.
"We get as competitive as we do in sports," said Kelen Mullin of Londonderry High School's team.
The competition tests the devices the students have engineered and their ability to cooperate in making them better than their rivals.
"Designing something that can operate and function is one thing," said Pelham team adviser Timothy Guanci. "Seeing that function in a competition and in a cooperative alliance with two other teams is very important to understand their future roles in engineering."
Some said the competition rivals traditional sports, making stars out of the studious.
"Our challenge in the engineering piece of it has always been to get that right," said Steve Blanchard, Alison's father and a mentor to the Pelham team. "Now, the thrill of the competition, to walk in and see hundreds of students cheering and stomping their feet like a sporting event, is amazing; it's getting a lot of visibility."
Members of FIRST teams are enthused by what they do, creating a buzz in school hallways and cafeterias.
"In the group I hang out with, there's a lot of excitement about robotics," said Josh Walker, a student at John Stark Regional High School in Weare. "I try to talk about the team as much as I can."
This year's FIRST competition required the teams to create robots that race after giant balls and score points by passing and shooting.
Nick Laurin, who also plays hockey, had the job of programming Pelham's machine.
"A couple of kids on the hockey team are like 'Wow, that's pretty cool that we can do the same thing,'" he said.
Tori Banford, a member of the combined team representing Hopkinton and John Stark high schools, takes a course in civil engineering and architecture as a sophomore and was drawn to the idea of competing while an eighth-grader.
"I thought it was pretty cool," she said. "It's really cool to see it come together over six weeks to shoot a ball into a goal."
Foot-stomping crowds are a welcome sight.
"It is kind of cool around the school," said John Stark senior Garett Proulx, "It was almost like a sports team winning a championship."
An alliance of teams from Souhegan High School in Nashua, Litchfield High School and South Windsor (Conn.) High School won the competition. Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua was awarded the district chairman's award.