The 500-plus teams at the Georgia Dome built their own robots to compete in a series of matches capping a yearlong program designed to increase the number of future engineers.
More than $9 million in scholarships for high scores in dozens of categories adds to a sense that no single team wins.
"Today, facing the challenges of our fragile global economy and climate change and address worldwide public health concerns, we need innovative thinkers to help solve society's increasingly complex problems," said Segway scooter inventor Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST.
The program taps into the goals of budding engineers in Aiken County schools.
Ten students joined the M'Aiken Magic Robots team, spending hours designing, building and programming a small robot for each year's contest. Other local teams competed with a larger robots or Lego blocks and miniature motors, but they didn't make the national championship this year.
The small robots provide a transition from the middle school Lego contests to the 5-foot-tall robots in the advanced level, according to private-industry mentor Craig Wacker.
The small robots are less complex and allow more students to have a hands-on role in their construction, he said.
Aiken High School senior Ryan Coleman decided to stay on the small robot team all four years, partly because the students rely less on the mentors and teachers at that level.
"What the adults do, they are kind of there to watch over us," he said. "I don't think they've really touched the thing at all."
Experience could be a better teacher than the adults, Mr. Wacker said, noting the various challenges and time constraints of the competition.
"It's teaching them a lot," he said. "It's teaching them to fix things on the fly. It's making me a nervous wreck. You don't get help in the real world."
Mr. Wacker's daughter Brittany says the competition is exciting, partly because she's the only girl on the team.
"I love it. There's less drama," she said. "Nobody's complaining 'Aw, something hit me.' "
After three years with the Lego robots in middle school, Brittany joined the teams at Aiken High for the small and big robots. And it is shaping her future.
She was going to become a teacher, but cutbacks in the field have convinced her to study engineering.