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Whirs of motors and enthusiastic cheers filled UMass Lowell’s Costello Gym on a rainy Saturday in early April as scores of students and their teachers, parents and supporters ߝ and robots ߝ participated in the annual New England Botball Tournament and Botfest Exhibition. These high-tech, high-octane events highlight the skills and creativity of students, working in teams, in the areas of robotics and computer programming and engineering.
More than 150 middle- and high-school students from Massachusetts and Connecticut tested their mettle at this year’s Botball tournament. Each of the 20 teams had only seven weeks to create robots using kits from the KISS (“Keep It Simple, Stupid”) Institute for Practical Robotics. The robots had to compete against one another on a 4-by-8-foot game board in a series of fast-paced, non-destructive matches. They had to outrace and outmaneuver their opponents completely on their own, with no remote control, to “save” crew members and supplies before a simulated solar flare occurred.
“These are robots with brains,” says Assoc. Prof. Holly Yanco of the Computer Science Department, who is the principal organizer of the event. “Students designed, built and programmed their robots, and the competition is educational as well as entertaining.”
Overall winner in points was Malden Catholic High School. Andover High School placed second, while Needham and Ashland high schools took the third and fourth spots, respectively. “For the first time this year, there was a bridge that could be lowered between the opponents’ boards,” says Yanco. “No one had been able to cross that bridge all day, but in the exciting final moments of the tournament, the Andover robot managed to cross it, scoring lots of points and actually pushing its Malden counterpart out of the way.”
Phyllis Procter, the department’s program manager for community partnerships, says that when Duxbury’s high school team dropped out at the last minute, its middle school students decided to step up to the plate, designing and building a robot in three days. “First-year teams may score only a few points and may be eliminated early on,” she says, “but if they learn from teams like the Duxbury Middle School, which continued to work on its robot even after being eliminated, they’ll be sure to come back in a much stronger position next year.”
Botfest offers an opportunity for inventors of all ages to share ideas in animatronics and robotics. More than 80 students in 15 teams, including those from middle schools in Andover, Ashland, Haverhill, Hopkinton, Lawrence, Lowell, North Reading and Worcester, as well as the Boys and Girls Club and the Youth Development Organization of Lawrence and UML Computer Science graduate students, participated in this year’s event.
“The commitment of teachers and parents was wonderful to see, to give their students and children a chance to express their creativity,” says Computer Science Asst. Prof. Fred Martin. “The youngsters really enjoyed seeing each other’s work and realizing that there are people from all over the state who like to build interactive, computer-controlled projects. Kids in the iCODE, or Internet Community of Design Engineers, program all got matching bright red T-shirts, which they really liked. This year, for the first time, we had two home-based projects with parents and children exhibiting together.”
“Often, students who are too young to compete in Botball will exhibit at Botfest, having acquired a taste for the thrill of robotic tinkering from an older sibling,” says Procter. “Similarly, students exhibiting at Botfest will check out the fast-paced, high-stakes competition that’s taking place in the same hall. This cross-group exposure and exploration contributes to the success and growth of both programs.”
Corporate sponsors for Botball and Botfest included Analog Devices, which donated $10,000, and Varian Semiconductor Equipment, which gave $1,000. For more information about the events, visit www.botball.org and www.botfest.org. To view photos of the events, visit UML's photo gallery.