Autonomous robots are the name of the game in an annual competition called “botball,” which tasks middle school and high school students to work together to program robots based on practical ideas.
Students from across the midwest converged at SIUE last weekend to test their robot designs at the Greater St. Louis Botball Tournament in a score-based game that requires fully automated robots built by the participants.
Funded by the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics, botball is an educational program meant to educate students in real-life robotics by allowing students to construct one of their own designs. Every year, the game changes modes and rules, all of which are based around real-life scenarios where robotics could be applied — this year, the competition is centered around medical personnel and situations.
At the tournament, schools travelled from the midwest area to Edwardsville, with students ranging in age from sixth grade to seniors in high school. While students with such a large age gap does not usually work directly together, students are encouraged to collaborate with a range of team members.
The competition is nothing new and opens students to new opportunities; it not only teaches them programming but forces them to become more independent, said instructor David Mutchler, of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, who has been involved in the program since 1998.
“I’ll tell you the story of my own kids. Four boys went through botball and none of them pursued a technical career. But botball is what taught them to be organized, how to follow a schedule and how to plan. That’s what botball brings to the students — skills that work across the board, no matter what their career is,” said Mutchler.
First, teams prepared for the tournament bracket by testing their programs one last time, the programs of which are triggered to start through flashes of light on the field. Their bots scored points by moving and securing game pieces like toy ambulances and putting out fires on top of hospitals, signified by red and yellow adhesive stickers.
Mutchler works with teams from the Terre Haute area, including a middle school and high school, playing into the age range that brings many into the program. The team traveled four hours to be at the tournament and competed with two bots, named ‘Ada Lovelace’ and ‘Maja Mataric.’
Edwardsville High School’s team showed up in full force and worked with the Lincoln Middle School and Liberty Middle School teams. Co-President of the EHS team Alex Wernex said they had gone through multiple revisions of one robot before settling on one with an arm meant to save the mayor of ‘Botopia,’ who is on the top of a skyscraper, which is just a foam-core tower with a plush toy on the top.
“At the beginning of the season, we decided that we wanted an arm that could extend about two feet up, and our original design was to have it mounted on a fixed point and use a pulley on the end of it to spin it up. We had a lot of problems, so we went direct with it and haven’t had any problems after that,” said Wernex.
This trial-and-error problem-solving seemed to be critical for the program; even at the tournament event, students would continue to tweak their robots’ programming between matches to perfect movements. Because botball does not allow any manual control, each team had to program their bot to retrieve ‘injured citizen’ game pieces and other objects on the field to return them to ‘safe’ areas to score; this is done fully autonomously and stop and start without any intervention.
One of the KISS Institute’s representatives at the competition, financial bookkeeper Kari Li, searched for a place for her daughter to be involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. As Li and her husband are both engineers, she hopes to get even more kids involved in engineering — women, especially.
The STEM center’s ‘liaison’ for the day, Colin Wilson, has been involved in the sciences but said he has rarely seen people within this age-range willing to dedicate so much of their time.
“Events like this are really great because they give kids a chance to see themselves on campus, in a literal way. The challenge with this [botball] is that, if you wanted to be involved in other clubs in high school, you could go every other week or maybe take a month off; this is really about putting in the hours, which is a challenge of this competition but also a strength,” said Wilson.
As botball continues to grow, the institute is spreading to more schools across the world. Its focus on younger students appears to be teaching many and inspiring the next wave of practical robots for realistic situations.
While the greater St. Louis area’s season has come to a close, the KISS Institute is hosting their global conference for educational robotics from July 7, 2019 to July 11, 2019 in Norman, Oklahoma. Teachers and instructors can register a team through the KISS Institute’s botball website page at https://www.kipr.org/botball.