ST. LOUIS — About 29,000 students are participating in a prestigious robotics competition hosted in downtown St. Louis.

Students from 40 countries and all 50 states will begin the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology competition Thursday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The three-day competition includes hundreds of matches and presentations for K-12 students.

In January, groups of students in grades seven through 12 were given a problem to solve as well as a box of parts, motors, sensors and gears. With the help of mentors from companies such as Honeywell and Boeing, they designed, built and programmed a robot to take on various tasks on a game table or court.

The students have qualified for this week's championship by beating others at state and regional competitions throughout the school year. During the competition, the robots work to outmaneuver one another by hurling boulders through the window of a tower and attempting to scale their opponent's tower.

"It's really spectacular and kind of a rush," said Thomas Mills, a high school senior from Florissant.

Another league gives kindergarten through eighth-grade students a real-world problem to solve. This year's theme is solid waste.

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, began the competitions in New Hampshire. In its 26th year, FIRST is designed to celebrate science with the same enthusiasm as the fanfare behind athletic events.

"They're not soccer players, necessarily, and they're not usually sports kids, but they still want to compete," said Jeff Pitts, a robotics mentor who is working with a nonprofit group to expand the activity at the middle school level. "They want to compete with their minds and their hands."

The competition continues to grow nationally as more schools offer robotics clubs or classes each year, encouraging students to pursue science, engineering and technology.

But even with the growth, there remains a void, particularly in schools with high concentrations of minority or low-income students.

"In the vast majority of schools, kids still don't have access to these programs," said Donald Bossi, president of FIRST.

It's a problem for engineering and technology companies that have more jobs than qualified people to fill them and want to have a more diversified work force.

"We've become more vocal advocates of using robotics to help engage more women, more kids of color, more kids from less advantaged economic circumstances," Bossi said.

The 2017 FIRST competition will be a dual championship held in St. Louis and Houston.

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