Robots Invade UMass Lowell

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By PIERRE COMTOIS

LOWELL- It was a good thing that when science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov drew up his three laws of robotics a robot may not injure a human being; a robot must obey orders given it by a human being, except where it conflicts with the first law; and a robot must protect its own existence so long as it does not conflict with the first and second laws that he didn't include a law against competition.

Otherwise, a good deal of the fun and excitement would have been taken out of yesterday's New England Regional Botball Tournament.

The tournament was held at UMass Lowell's Campus Recreation Center and attended by 14 teams of young electronics designers and programmers from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

'I'm extremely happy,' said a euphoric Benjamin Lessard of Rhode Island's South Kingston High School after his 10th year of competition. 'Our goal was to push the blue cups off to the side and score negative points, and our robot did what it was supposed to do.'

'You really learn a lot in this kind of competition,' said Lessard's teammate, Rachel Bartels, a five-year Botball veteran. 'Especially the programming part of it. You learn to think logically and not to play with variables.'

'It's really challenging because sometimes the way you program it is not the way it ends up working,' said 13-year-old Charles Essin of Worcester's Burncoat Middle School. 'You never really know what's wrong until you check all the possibilities. I'd recommend it for anyone who's interested in a career in computers.'

In Botball, students from elementary, middle and high schools are challenged to build robots designed specifically to solve a number of technical problems.

To wit: They had to design their own robots and program them to distinguish between the colors of yellow and blue. In addition, the robots had to perform without remote control on a game board and gather as many yellow cups as it could in less than 90 seconds.

'You have to build a robot from scratch and then program it,' explained Ashland High School student Joanna Fonseca. 'Our robot didn't do bad, but it was more difficult than we thought. It was easier to design than to program it, and it doesn't always come out the way you expect.'

The key to success in the Botball tournament is teamwork, Bartels said.

Event organizer Holly Yanco, an assistant professor of computer science at UMass Lowell, said the tournament did what it set out to do, much like some of the robots.

'I want to get kids interested in science and technology, and this is a good way to do it,' Yanco said. 'Holding the tournament at the Campus Recreation Center gives kids a chance to see what college students are doing (in the way of computer science).'

In conjunction with the Botball tournament, yesterday's event also included Botfest, an exhibit of computer-related student projects designed to get kids interested in technology.

'Robotics makes computers exciting,' explained organizer Fred Martin, also an assistant professor of computer science at UMass Lowell. 'It's an aspect of human experience that's open to everyone.'

'Learning about technology has real-world applications,' agreed fifth-grade teacher Anna McCabe of Smithfield, R.I. 'The children learn teamwork, workplace skills and problem-solving. When they run into a problem, they learn to go up another path and see where it leads to.'

McCabe's students used technology to create robots that moved and could sense different objects across an Australian landscape, then combined what they learned with art based on aboriginal patterns.

'We tried to learn about a different culture,' explained 10-year-old Samantha Crompton. 'We learned that we have to respect aboriginal culture and just be inspired by them.'

Meanwhile, since Asimov's laws are silent on the matter, the South Kingston team was the overall winner, followed by Algonquin Regional of Northboro and Wellesley High.