Island Team Wins Robotics Championship

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Vineyard Gazette Online By NIS KILDEGAARD

The Massachusetts state-champion Botball teams of the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School are living proof that sometimes the secret of success lies in failing repeatedly, with enthusiasm.

The charter school sent a team to the state Botball competition last year with less than spectacular results. "Basically, our robot didn't work," is the way 13-year-old Colin Day of Edgartown, a charter school seventh-grader, explains it. Last year the Island team won only one of its many 90-second matches, and that's because the opponents' robot accidentally scored points for them.

"It wasn't disheartening," said Colin this week, recalling his team's experience of getting their bots kicked last year. "It was fun."

Instead of throwing in the electronic towel, the charter school kids regrouped and organized two teams for this year's competition, held Saturday, March 29, at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Their robots competed in a day of double-elimination matches, with 13 teams from across the state taking part. When the dust had settled and the ozone wafted away, two undefeated teams were left standing to face off in the championship round: the girls' team versus the boys' team of the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School.

In a hard-fought final match, the robot built by the girls defeated the boys' entry, 9-6, to win the glittering two-foot trophy and bragging rights as the commonwealth's 2003 Botball champions. Actually, both genders have reason to celebrate, because the championship team included not only Nirvana Hintgen and Nora Karasik of West Tisbury, Alexae Levin of Tisbury and Amira Madison of Chilmark, but also three members whom the team calls its "honorary girls" - Gus Paquet-Whal and Chris Conklin of Edgartown and Alex Luce of Oak Bluffs.

Botball is the creation of the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics, a national nonprofit program encouraging kids to learn about science, technology, engineering and math. The institute sends each participating team a big box of parts - sensors, motors, Lego pieces, computer circuits and software - and gives them six weeks to design and build a winning machine.

Botball is played by the machines alone, without any remote guidance by the students. That means each robot's own internal computer must control its actions on the playing field of four by eight feet, where it works to capture ping-pong balls and larger foam balls and to manipulate standing tubes and "nests" built of plastic pipe. Each round lasts just a minute and a half; it begins when the stadium lights are switched on and ends when the lights go off. If a robot fails to start when the lights go up, it can't score points, and if it keeps running when the lights go off, the team is disqualified.

It's possible to score 60 points or more in a round, but the most tantalizing scoring opportunities involve complex feats of design, engineering and programming. This year, the winning Island team took its cue from the acronym of the KISS Foundation - keep it simple, stupid. With the help of their mechanical mentor, motorcycle mechanic Mike (Panhead) Fuss, the girls devised a machine that essentially describes a capital T on the playing surface. It motors straight ahead to knock down the first tube and free its ping-pong balls - that's 3 points. It pivots 90 degrees and backs up to topple the second tube - another 3 points. It drives ahead to hit the final tube and raise its score to 9 points. Then, mission completed, the little robot simply goes to sleep.

It isn't the most dramatic performance, but at the state tournament, it was reliable. And with consistent scores of 9 points, game after game, the girls of the charter school watched their little robot - actually, two sister models named Phelix and Phuzz - outwit and outlast the competition. Other teams went after balls in the nests, or essayed such ambitious scoring schemes as climbing into the nests, tipping nests or even stacking them for really big points, but along the way their robots broke down, became confused and even scored a few points for the Vineyarders. While the creations of other teams, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun and fell, the girls' humble design, which the team affectionately describes as "a moving brick with a hook on it," won the day.

Jane Paquet of the charter school faculty, who supervised, said no decision has yet been made on whether to take a team to the national Botball championships in Oklahoma this June. There might be some grant funding available, but even so it's an awfully expensive school trip.

The Botball teams have no booster club, and no cheerleading squad. Saturday night, when they walked off the ferry bearing their state trophies, no howling fire trucks awaited them. Still, the sense of team spirit among the young roboticists seemed awfully high. "The whole school was really proud of us," said Nirvana Hintgen, a veteran of both year's teams. Said Nora Karasik, "It was the funnest day of my life!"

The charter school already has several fixtures in its entrance hallway that set it apart as unique among Island educational institutions. One of the most prominent is the rack, just inside the front door, where those kids who skateboard to school can stow their gear each morning. But on Tuesday in the front office, business manager Seth Mosler was pondering an entirely new problem for the school entrance area. Suddenly they need a display case for the school's growing collection of trophies.