TAMPA — It starts quietly, just a few kids and the steady whir of a robot motor.
Then a few becomes 15 and they're talking spiritedly about how many crates will fit on a hook.
It's robotics season at Middleton High School.
School teams have been in competitions the past two weekends, and state contests roll around after the first of the year.
"The energy level is insane," said Kathy Freriks, lead teacher for the school's magnet programs.
At one competition, Middleton's teams earned so many points — awarded for everything from how high they can stack baskets on a lift to how well the robot can run autonomously — that they broke a world record.
The milestone, following a string of wins last year, has boosted the club's profile on campus.
"It's good to see how the kids at the school see the accolades that you get not just on the sports field," Freriks said.
And the robotics club is attracting students from outside the magnet engineering program, which benefits the school population as a whole.
Middleton has three teams, each with about 10 kids, said 17-year-old Carson Wolf, the club president.
"I want to major in engineering," he said, though he does not yet know where he'll go to college.
Others are fresh out of middle school. The typical path to the Team Minotaur or Masquerade starts around preschool with a Legos set and continues through summer camp.
"I've always been interested in prosthetics," said Lauren Slack, 14.
Educators like robotics because it's a natural stepping stone to advanced study in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) a group of disciplines crying out for students.
Robotics requires teamwork, from the design of these squat, moving wonders to execution in the competition.
And who doesn't love a robot? Better yet, building one.
"You feel like you're accomplishing something," said Jonathan Moore, 14.
Added Slack, "It's a combination of guidance and osmosis."
On this Wednesday afternoon in between competitions, the students pitted their robots against each other and grappled with issues as complicated as programming and as simple as a torn conveyor belt.
The goal was to have one robot gather a dozen or so racquet balls from the arena floor and feed them to a slightly larger robot that would hoist them in a plastic crate.
Up and down a ramp the robots scampered, students ever more animated as one got stuck on a corner or another stopped for no apparent reason.
"It's fantastic," said Adam Ward, 15, who commutes all the way from Lithia to attend Middleton. "I do these at home. When you build something and it works for the first time, there is nothing quite like it."
Bruce Neuman, the father of team member Brian Neuman, watched from the sidelines.
It irks him, he said, that Middleton is known for crime in the neighborhood when the school has some of the most accomplished students in Hillsborough County.
"What I love about this school is, they will let the kid do whatever he is capable of," he said. "My son is a sophomore, and he's in four schools."
That's right, four: Middleton for courses that include chemistry and calculus, Florida Virtual School for honors English, Hillsborough Community College for Spanish and the University of South Florida for engineering statistics.
"It's interesting to see them solve a problem," Neuman said as the room grew even louder.
"They yell and scream and fuss at each other, but it all comes together at the end."
Ninety minutes into their meeting, the kids took a pizza break.
Then it was back to work.
Fingers flew as programmers attacked the laptops. Teammates debated how wide a pathway they would need for a maneuver.
Brian Neuman would have stayed until the end. But his father took him early, explaining, "He has Spanish class at HCC."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org