Michael Patton has upgraded from the Legos of his childhood to building and programming complicated robotics.
"I've always been an engineering-minded person," he said. "It was just kind of a natural fit."
Patton, a junior at Soddy-Daisy High School, and about a dozen other students are constructing a six-wheeled robot to go head-to-head in a national robotics competition. Volunteers and experts at the Tennessee Valley Authority are helping students build the robot in the training center next to TVA's Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.
The Knoxville competition -- sponsored by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and set for March 1-3 -- will pit teams of three robots against each other. The objective is to pick up and shoot as many baskets as possible using Nerf-style basketballs. How they do it is up to each team; some will use mechanical arms or air cannons to shoot the balls.
"There will be as many solutions as there are kids," said Richard Manning, a local retired engineer who's helping with the project.
The local team is building a rotating belt to lob the balls. When they compete in Knoxville, the gym's atmosphere will resemble that of a rowdy basketball game, complete with hollering fans and even cheerleaders for some teams, Patton said.
"It's turning robotics into a sport," he said.
The competition gives him a glimpse into the world of an engineer, Patton said. After attending the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, he hopes to become a mechanical engineer.
Building the robot is "just like a normal engineer -- too much to get done in too little time," he said. "But you've got to get it done."
TVA helps fund the competition, along with about 15 other teams in Hamilton County elementary and middle schools that compete at various levels. Charles Spencer, a TVA senior adviser, said the organization wants to encourage students interested in science, technology, engineering and math.
"We want some of these kids to come work for us eventually," he said.
And there's plenty of demand in Hamilton County Schools, Spencer said. Some schools have so much interest, they must draw names in a lottery or make students write an essay to get into the group, he said.
"You've got kids actually building something using computers," Spencer said. "The kids just love it."