Putting Minds to Machines

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By SUSAN McMAHON

LOWELL- Think of it as a kinder, gentler robot competition.

From lighted necklaces that blink when you meet a new friend to Lego robots picking up ping-pong balls, Botball and BotFest, two events that will be held at UMass Lowell next weekend, aim to encourage kids to be creative with science and technology.

'I think what we're doing is making science and technology fun, so you're not just taking a physics class and learning about how things move around or spin. You can put wheels on a robot and actually make it spin,' said Holly Yanco, a computer science professor at UMass Lowell.

About 13 teams from across Massachusetts and Rhode Island are scheduled to participate in the Botball event, which will pit student-created robots against one another in a friendly competition.

Students have about two months to build the robots, constructing them from Legos and other parts. Then they have their creations perform different tasks to earn points, like knocking over a tube filled with ping-pong balls, then picking up all the rolling objects.

The events pit students from across grade levels against one another, from middle schools such as the Robinson School in Lowell and high schools like Chelmsford High School.

The competition will take place Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Campus Recreation Center. Seeding rounds are from 10 a.m. to noon.

All events are free and open to the public.

The BotFest competition will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Students from fourth-grade through graduate school will display their creative offerings, with possibilities ranging from robots that can play tic-tac-toe to ones that can make and deliver tea.

One fourth-grade class created jewelry that can be programmed with its wearer's likes and interests. When two necklaces that appear compatible come near each other, they start to flash.

While that may not be the traditional idea of robotics, it's another method of engaging the students creatively while teaching them about programming, computation and sensing the basics of robotics, said computer science professor Fred Martin.

'It's a huge validation for these kids to come and to see that other kids and other adults are interested in this stuff,' he said.

The goal is to show kids a good time while capturing their interest in robotics.

'We're hoping to make it fun for kids,' Yanco said. 'If you can interest them in technology that young, hopefully we can interest them in staying with it.'

For more information, go to the competition's Web site: www.cs.uml.edu/k12