Thousands gather at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, April 7 for regional championship.

It was hot, hot, hot in the ice rink — but the crowd's champion was no mortal puck slinger.

Robots are the contestants here — custom-built contraptions that seem like the diabolical hybrid of an upright vacuum cleaner and a very angry forklift — each steered by a battalion of engineers drawn from high schools across Oregon and Washington.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Student-controlled robots lift 'power cubes' made of milk crates onto a scale during the FIRST Robotics regional championship on Saturday, April 7 in Portland. This isn't battle bots.

In an arena designed like Pac-Man's playground, the robots scurried to hoist fabric-covered milk crates onto balances, with some climbing the teeter-totter scales as the clock counted down the 150-second matches.

And as a winner emerged, the roar of the throng of about 5,000 filled Veterans Memorial Coliseum during the third and final day of the FIRST Robotics northwest regional competition on Saturday, April 7 in Portland's Rose Quarter.

"It's a great community, and you learn so much. I now know how to work complex machine shop tools," said drive coach Sarah Briggler, currently in her junior year at Wilsonville High.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - A student from team Error Code Xero wore this robotic mask to the FIRST Robotics regional championship on Saturday, April 7 in Portland.Briggler's team, Error Code Xero 1425, was named a second-place finalist after the last match of the day, a nail-biter that ended in victory for a three-team alliance from Washington State. Those teams will participate in the 2018 dual championship in Boston and Detroit.

"It's really empowering as a girl, getting all this STEM training," continued Briggler, 16, using the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

About one-third of the contestants this year are girls, according to Oregon executive director David Perry, a number that's steadily climbing and is expected to reach gender parity in as little as five years.

Perry, an East Portland resident, called the kids "future employees" learning "valuable skills" in a sedate interview backstage. Then he grabbed a flame mounted on a long pole in order to demonstrate the value of hands-on learning, which he did by igniting a giant alien made of hydrogen-filled balloons.

"The virtual world is great, but sometimes the real thing is better," Perry said with glee after the giant whoosh of flame.

Almost all of the 64 teams have at least 25 members, though some are much larger, giving students the opportunity to divy up the tasks of designing the robots using computer-aided design software called CAD.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Nick Ogden is a senior at Glencoe High School in Hillsboro and a four-year member of his school's team, Shockwave 4488. With travel expenses, registration and stipends, it can easily cost $20,000 to field a contingent. The game is won using points that are mostly awarded by tipping the scale.

"If you control the scale, you have a very high chance of winning," noted Nick Ogden, a senior at Glencoe High School in Hillsboro and a four-year member of the school's team, Shockwave 4488.

Ogden, who dyed his blonde hair a fiery red for the occasion, said he spent 500 hours spread over three months working on his team's robot. The club has inspired him to pursue a college degree in mechatronics, though his passion had a modest beginning.

"I sucked at basketball and I wanted something to do in the winter," he explained.

And the reason behind his audacious, vermillion-colored 'do?

"It's a tradition. Before the competition we get the drive team all mohawked up," Ogden said with a smile.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - FROM LEFT: Bret Gibson, Jack Jensen and Ben Chan pose for a photo during the FIRST Robotics regional championship in Portland on Saturday, April 7. Bret Gibson, an Error Code Xero team member who studies at Oregon City High School, said FIRST had given him a head start on a career as an electrical engineer or electrician.

"I've learned a lot from my mentors and peers around me," the 16-year-old commented.

"We spend most of our time fixing the robot," added teammate Ben Chan, an 18-year-old attending West Linn High who served as a design lead and on the pit crew.

Major Oregon sponsors of FIRST Robotics — otherwise known as For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology — include Lam Research, Tripwire, First Tech Federal Credit Union, Mentor Graphics, Hewlett-Packard, Tektronix, FLIR and Autodesk.

Need more bots? Here are a few more photos taken by our reporter at the scene:

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - The FIRST Robotics competition was livestreamed via the internet and broadcast on the big screen at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland's Rose Quarter.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Students work on their robot during the FIRST Robotics Northwest Regional Championship on Saturday, April 7 in Portland.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - An estimated 5,000 people attended the FIRST Robotics regional championship in Portland on April 7.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Students bust a move during a break of the FIRST Robotics championship in Portland.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - A referee oversees the action during the FIRST Robotics regional championship in Portland.

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