The chicken dance is not just for uniting humans of all ages in the spirit of synchronized hand-clamping: It's for robots, too.

Middle schoolers descended on the Levine Science Research Center Saturday for the RoboCupJunior regional competition.

The contest is part of a larger initiative in the Durham area to engage college students with children in sixth to eighth grades through robotics projects.

"Kids love robotics. It's amazing how much they can do with them," said Jeff Forbes, assistant professor of the practice of computer science.

The RoboCupJunior competition involved teams from two area middle schools, Chewning and Apex, as well as more than 60 students from Durham middle schools who came as spectators.

The International RoboCupJunior competition offers three challenges, explained Tom Settle, the robotics coach for Apex Middle School. Students can develop robots to dance to a chosen song, cooperate with other robots or perform a search and rescue by navigating a simulated disaster field.

Throughout the day, Duke students, most of whom belong to the National Society of Black Engineers, helped run the event and assisted the students with the design and programming of the robots.

Before the actual competition-held in the afternoon-Duke students offered robotics education for the participants.

The morning consisted of demonstrations and breakfast as well as a workshop run by junior Chris Bryant.

"We actually have a program that we do every Thursday-we'll go and have them do some sort of robot challenge in programming or something," Bryant said.

The program is a service learning course taught by Forbes called Computer Science Education Research Seminar. The small group of students enrolled in the course visit Chewning Middle School in northeast Durham weekly.

"Chewning is a school that has a large number of 'at-risk' children," Forbes said.

The Department of Computer Science decided to pilot the service learning program with Chewning last year, and offers the volunteering-based course as a half-credit every semester.

Other area middle schoolers who attended the RoboCupJunior competition came as part of Students Making Another Science Success Story, a program run out of North Carolina Central University.

SMASSS educates students from Durham middle schools in different areas of math and science through a summer camp and Saturday "academies" during the school year.

As spectators, the SMASSS students learned about basic robotics principles such as design specifications and programming light sensors.

Ray Harrison, a summer instructor for the SMASSS summer camp, said the students were not familiar enough with robotics to enter a team this year.

"They have expressed a lot of interest-next year they'll have a little more experience," Harrison said.

The event held at Duke Saturday offered the middle school students a chance to compete in the dance and sensor rescue challenges.

Chewning Middle School won first place in both competitions, beating Apex's chicken-dancing robot with a robot decorated as a cardinal which performed to "I Believe I Can Fly."

Forbes' students will be taking a team of four from each school to the International RoboCupJunior competition held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in July.