Behind The Scenes At NASA’s High School Robotics Competition

It’s like NASCAR for robots, says a photographer who documented competing high schoolers and their home-made ‘bots.

Each year, hundreds of high school students gather throughout the U.S. and South America to pit their home-grown robots against each other. Tensions run high as some of the brightest teenagers in the world compete with the kind of fervor you’ll find at any sporting event–and about as much awkwardness as a school dance.


At FIRST Robotics competitions, robots roll along a caged-in basketball court, jump over obstacles, scoop up balls, and shoot them inside a cardboard castle. Sponsored in part by NASA, the competition is in its 25th season and has over 78,000 student participants. There are time clocks, referees, and even cheerleaders. On FIRST’s website, the NASA-sponsored annual event is billed as the “Superbowl of Smarts.”

L.A.-based photographer Christopher Baliwas decided to attend FIRST’s Long Beach competition after coming across an announcement for it online. He describes the event as a bit like a NASCAR for robots, with teams of teenagers waiting court-side like mechanics in the pit, ready to tweak and patch up their robots before sending them back onto the court. In his series LA FIRST, Baliwas documents the face-off between robots, as well as the teams of young engineers who masterminded them.

FIRST–which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology–is part of a recent wave of competitions aimed at getting kids more interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM. Events like FIRST, along with the Toshiba-sponsored Exploravision competition and the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge are part of a nationwide emphasis on helping kids prepare for jobs in STEM fields–a sector that is projected to continue growing rapidly over the next decade. They’ve been bolstered by TV shows like Comedy Central’s Battlebots, which gives science and engineering the cool factor.

As Baliwas’s photos show, half of the competition looks like a trade show, with rows of booths where teams gather to work on their robots with their engineer mentors. The other half of the space is dedicated to the ongoing competition. From the court, a screen projects the competition like a Jumbotron to fans watching from the stadium seating. Teenagers with X-Box controllers or steering wheels direct their creations from the sidelines.

Going in, Baliwas intended to focus the series on the robots, but since they were all created from the same set of parts, he found they weren’t wildly varied. Instead, he trained his lens on the teen participants. “The whole competition was really diverse, [in terms of] gender, race, even the kids’ backgrounds,” he says, noting that the high schoolers didn’t fall neatly into the category of “geeks.” As a result Baliwas’s series was mostly relegated to the sidelines, revealing the individuality of the high schoolers through thoughtfully shot portraits.

All Photos: courtesy Christopher Baliwas


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.