Top Ten Reasons Students and Teachers
Choose To Do Botball Robotics
“I have only participated in Botball for one year, but that was the most fun and most exhilarating program I have ever participated in. Ever. “ Alejandro Baca, former Botball participant.
Alejandro Baca is now a college freshman at New Mexico State and lead electrical engineer on NMSU’s robotic team “The Crimson Constructs”. He mentors two high school Botball teams and is starting up a third. What is it about this program that has inspired this individual to achieve and to help others excel as well?
Every year thousands of middle and high school aged students like Alejandro choose to spend their days and nights designing, building, programming, testing, ripping apart, retesting, reprogramming and generally living, eating, and breathing Botball robotics. Occasionally they sleep.
The teams create a pair of robots to compete in a regional Botball Program, and many will also play in the International Botball Tournament. Everyone starts with the same materials and processors, but like snowflakes, no two bots are alike.
With the wide variety of robotics programs available, why do students and teachers choose to participate in Botball Robotics, many of them year after year?
If you ask the staff at KISS Institute for Practical Robotics, the people who created Botball and run this program, theyâ€™ll tell you itâ€™s the unique combination of elements: only students create the robots (not mentors), Botball robots never use remote control â€“ theyâ€™re always programmed in C, every regional program starts with a local hands-on workshop, and schools and clubs get to keep all the equipment, which is reusable. They are committed to the concept of the â€œlevel playing fieldâ€ â€“ every team uses the same materials, and no machining is necessary.
If you ask Botball sponsors, such as NASA or the Naval Research Lab, they may tell you that itâ€™s all about influencing their future employees. Sponsors take notice of the brilliant and inventive minds they get to see in action at the tournament, and several interns have been hired based on connections made at Botball Tournaments.
But in reality, itâ€™s all about the students and teachers. What are their Top Ten reasons for choosing this program?
Reason #10: The level of sophistication: â€œI told an aerospace engineer what I was attempting to do through Botball. He was amazed at the level of sophistication that was being taught at the middle school level, says Reggie Clark, a teacher at Palm Desert Charter Middle School. Every year the game offers different challenges at varying levels of difficulty, so participants can focus on harder goals, or find simpler solutions, based on their abilities.
Botball uses the CBC2, a powerful robot controller that easily interfaces with a large number of sensors and effectors and features an ARM 9-based CPU/Vision processor running LINUX, an ARM 7-based DAQ/Motor control system, and integrated display and touch screens that are easy to use. The CBC2 uses the KISS-C Integrated Development Environment and its libraries, especially designed to be friendly to users with vastly different programming experience. Both the CBC2 and KISS-C were developed by KISS Institute and are used in university research programs as well as the Botball Program.
Students appreciate the sophistication of these robots and take pride the the fact that their robots are programmed rather than driven by joysticks. They get the importance of learning such a useful and marketable skill as programming. â€œI learned to program in two days built my own bot, and loved it.â€ said one 13 year old girl.
Reason #9: Unlocking student potential. Teachers frequently comment that participation with Botball allows youth who werenâ€™t previously engaged in school to suddenly become stars. Reggie Clark has seen this happen a number of times with such students, â€œI witnessed the same kids excel at programming and engineering skills at a remarkable pace.â€ As part of a team these students achieve more positive visibility in their schools, sometimes even surprising their friends and families.
Reason #8: Increase in positive social interaction for high-achieving, socially-challenged students: Jeremy Rand is a senior at Norman North High School and President of the Botball Youth Advisory Council. Heâ€™s candid about his experience:
â€œWhen I entered 7th grade in 2002, I was a relatively quirky kid with few friends who was bored with school. This was mainly because I have Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, which affects social interaction. Kids with A.S. can dramatically improve their social skills if they hang around socially skilled kids in a structured environment, but I didnâ€™t have anything like that. And while I had a 4.0 GPA and was very smart, school just wasnâ€™t interestingâ€¦
. . . . In the seven Botball-filled years since then, my social abilities have drastically improved, to the point that most people I meet at school never suspect that thereâ€™s anything weird about me, and I can work on a team with virtually no troubleâ€¦.Botball has been probably the most important thing in my life for the past seven years.â€
Reason #7: Knowledge: â€œYou learn so much! How to strategize, engineering, programming, developing life skills including communication, organization and teamwork.â€ says Stephanie Witherspoon, a teacher at Alexander Hamilton Middle School.
Former Botball student and current Harvard freshman Joe McCormick says that one of the reasons he likes Botball is because the program â€œ . . . teaches math & science, both useful in the context of high school physics or math. Botball requires an integration of both math and science, which has helped me in my school subjects.â€
Reason #6: Student Centered: This is an often-repeated theme, and new Botball participants are surprised to find out that adults are not even allowed in the pit at the tournaments. â€œI noticed how the program is centralized on the development of the students, and not a hobby for the mentors,â€ says Alejandro Baca, the New Mexico State freshman, who partipated on a high school Botball team for the first time last year .
Reason #5: Opportunity to be involved wth Youth Advisory Council: Normally, students rarely get to directly impact an international program, however, every year, students apply to participate in Botballâ€™s advisory council. This ensures that the program continues to improve as students are able to help shape this program thatâ€™s used by thousands of other students every year.
Reason #4: Support Network for Teachers and Teamleaders: This is often the first thing teachers mention. â€œGreat support for the coach/teacher including a workshop, a fantastic website, online documentation that encourages timely reporting and organization, fantastic support including a Q and A.â€ says Reggie Clark.
Reason #3: Global Conference on Educational Robotics: Every year KISS Institute for Practical Robotics holds the Global Conference on Educational Robotics for students, teachers, professionals, and the general public interested in robotics or education. The conference features the International Botball Tournament, presentations from professionals, students, and teachers, the KIPR Open Autonomous competition and much more.
â€œWhile I was at GCER I enjoyed listening to the presentations that students had prepared, themselves, in their personal development in the fields of Science, Mathematics, Technology, and Engineering. I have never seen that in any other robotics competition,â€ says Alejandro.
Jeremy adds, â€œIâ€™ve presented 12 papers over the past three years and I am convinced that the experience has made me far more confident (not to mention more competent on the technical subjects I presented. Since most of my a papers were collaborations with other students (including from other states), I have also gained distributed teamwork skills.â€
Reason #2: The people: Tess Niehoff, a college freshman and former President of the Botball Youth Advisory says one of the greatest things about this program is â€œmeeting people from all over the country (and world)! One of my best friends, is someone who lives half way across the country, and I would have never known otherwise. In addition I also keep in contact with friends from Poland, Oklahoma, California, and really all over the US. â€œ
Joe McCormick, also a former Botball Youth Advisory President, finds it significant that Botball â€œhelps make connections: volunteers, judges & mentors are useful resouces for recommendations or job offers in the future. And besides, Botball helps students get into the best schools in the country. (MIT, CMU, Harvard, among others.)â€
And the number one reason students and teachers choose to do Botball Robotics?
1: FUN! Without a doubt, this was the number one reason given by teachers, middle and high school students alike. (See Alejandroâ€™s opening quote.) At tournaments, the â€œcompetitive friendly atmosphereâ€ is inviting, not overwhelming, and since the games are always open-ended, people love to see all the different ideas and strategies that other teams have come up with to get points. As former Botball student Gavin K. says, â€œI think I can safely say that Botball was one of the most enjoyable things I have ever been involved in.”
More information about Botball Robotics, with links to the Botball Community forum, and free downloads of KISS-C, the multi-platform programming environment, can be found at www.botball.org.
Cathryne Stein is a co-founder and current board member of the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics.
 KISS is the old engineering acronym Keep It Simple, Stupid.