In addition to the farm animals, carnival rides and glitzy shows, the 122nd Maryland State Fair offered a more high-tech attraction: robots.
These 130-pound machines on wheels battled fiercely for two-minute intervals against piles of plastic storage bins during a lively, three-day competition. Yesterday, on the fair's final day, hundreds of spectators cheered inside a steamy white tent as teams of high school students competed for a regional title.
"Here, these kids really get to see math and science in action," said Wayne Mason, who teaches those subjects at Parkville High in Baltimore County. He also advises the Parkville Robotics team, which shared first place with Wattness, a team from a group of Towanda, Pa., schools.
Threatening skies turned sunny by midmorning and the fair drew an estimated 50,000 visitors yesterday, officials said. Crowds were estimated at 425,000 for the 11-day event in Timonium, about 75,000 more than last year, when steady rains deterred visitors.
Throughout the day - one of the fair's busiest - the robotics competition drew crowds of spectators, many of them asking questions of the contestants.
"It draws in competitors and their families," said Max Mosner, the fair's general manager. "This is great for young people and that is what this place is all about."
NASA started the national robotics competition called "FIRST" - For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology - nine years ago.
The competition starts in January, when teams pick up parts and specs for their robots. Student teams have six weeks to build entries before putting them in the national arena.
The 2003 competition, dubbed "stack attack," pitted robots against piles of plastic 5-gallon storage bins atop a platform. Each competition began with teams of two robots scaling an incline to the platform and trying to knock over the most bins. For the first 15 seconds, the robots ran autonomously; then students operated them by remote control.
"We knocked over nearly all the containers and protected our stack pretty well," said Garret Maxson, 15, of the Glenelg High Robotics.
In one set, the Howard County entry knocked over all 29 bins and stood triumphant and alone on the 12-foot-wide platform - a feat that added points to its score.
NASA, which sponsors more than 3,000 students and 200 teams across the country, is now hiring engineers who began their careers building robots.
"These kids are learning skills that we want our employees to have," said Dave Lavery, a NASA program executive and adviser to the Herndon High School team in Virginia. "They are creating new products and designing new systems."
At the off-season competition, 19 teams - six from Maryland - fielded robots engineered and built for a schedule that took them to Atlanta, Houston and other cities.
For inspiration, the students could look to Steven T. Shade, an associate engineer with Anteon Corp. in Annapolis.
He started with the competition four years ago as a Parkville High senior. He just graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in electrical engineering and landed a job making computer models for Navy ships.
This year, he is mentoring a rookie robotics team at South River High School in Anne Arundel County.
"I want to get more students on the engineering career path," said Shade.
"Sparky," South River's entry, improved with each stack attack, but was not expected to reach the finals, said Amanda Vehslage, physics teacher and robotics coach. Still, team enthusiasm never waned.
"This competition builds teamwork and gives students confidence and skills they thought they would never try," she said. "This is the most positive competition atmosphere I have ever seen."
It has other benefits, too.
"It shows them real skills, gets them enthusiastic about working together on time management, communication and fund raising," said Pat Byerly, adviser to the team from William Penn High School in York, Pa. Members of her 2001 team won more than $250,000 in scholarships to engineering schools.
Glenelg's team sent "The Dean" onto the field with two good-luck bears and a checkered racing flag. Meanwhile, Woodlawn's entry started belching smoke.
"We are having major problems with our gears," said Robyn Needel, an adviser to the Woodlawn Warriors. "We have retooled several times, but we are probably not going to win."
But Kirsten Jahn, 18, of Ambler, Pa., whose team engineered "Miss Daisy," said appearances can be deceiving.
"Sometimes the arms are bent, pieces fall off, they overheat and they need replacement batteries," she said. "They look beat up, but they are durable."