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SIUE’s annual Botball Tournament showcases creative young minds

Tue, 03/04/2014 - 11:15am
SIUE School of Engineering

Middle and high school students will engage their minds and their robots when Southern Illinois University Edwardsville hosts its annual Botball tournament on Sat., Apr. 12.

This is the 17th Botball season and the 12th year that SIUE will host the region’s tournament. Twenty-one teams will be coming to the Morris University Center’s Meridian Ballroom for the competition.

The event, coordinated through the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics, pits teams against one another in two-minute rounds. A team’s student-created robot must demonstrate its ability to perform a number of tasks worth varying points. The regional competition is open to the public and typically draws approximately 200 spectators with its growing number of teams from Illinois, Missouri, Indiana and Arkansas.

See: Photos of the Day: Botball robotics competition

“Jerry Weinberg (associate provost for research, dean of the Graduate School and professor of computer science) originally started the regional tournament,” said Gary Mayer, assistant professor of computer science in SIUE’s School of Engineering. “The goal is to use hand-on robotics programs in order to communicate the excitement, knowledge and practical understanding of technology, engineering and math.”

A team often includes both middle school and high school youths. Those who participate in the regional Botball tourney are actively working on robotics year-round, according to Mayer.

“Ultimately another goal with this competition is to make students comfortable with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics),” Mayer said. “We try to bring this opportunity to students of all ages and backgrounds. Often the robotics kits are used as part of classroom instruction or for after-school activities during the off-season.”

   Learning how to write computer programs that power the robot is but one skill that the Botball competition instills in youths.

“They’re learning the C programming language, one of the most widely used software languages in the world,” Mayer said. Honing their communications and teamwork talents is another key advantage of participating as a Botball tournament competitor.

Six to eight weeks prior to the April competition, Mayer leads a two-day weekend workshop for mentors and participants to explain and demonstrate every nuance of the event – the preparation required, rules about the building and operating of students’ robots, and more.

In the process of brainstorming creative add-ons for their robot – along with how they can most efficiently design it to meet and defeat its ultimate challenger – students are learning without even realizing it, because they’re having so much fun, Mayer said.

“Their robots are autonomous, so there’s no remote control,” he said. “Once the light source activates the robots and the round begins, students are not permitted to intervene. It’s all up to the bot from that moment on, as it meets each challenge such as finding objects, picking them up and stacking them.” 

 In the first portion of the daylong event at SIUE, teams enter a seeding round uncontested. The points earned during that round determine placement in the double-elimination bracket. A team’s overall score is earned by accumulating points equally from the seeding rounds, the tournament and also documentation provided to the judges, such as design of the robot and the team’s specific approach to problem-solving. An alliance match allows teams that lost early in the day to compete against each other, so they remain a part of the day’s action.

 Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois, under the guidance of Emily Stanley, GSSI’s STEM program manager, are entering three teams this year. Stanley said it’s commendable that a host of dedicated mentors – some parents, some not – are committed to coaching each Botball team.

   “We’re very proud of our girls and our robotics programs,” said Stanley. “The majority of girls in Botball are in sixth through eighth grade. Our O’Fallon (Ill.) team was our very first team to compete regionally, and it was also the first all-Girl Scout team in the nation.”

Helping girls realize that the science profession is open to them is one long-range reason for encouraging them to participate in the Botball competition and in the Girl Scouts’ robotics programs overall, according to Stanley.

“Not every girl is going to pursue a science career and that’s fine,” Stanley said, “but we want to make sure she sees and learn that several of her goals as a Girl Scout – making the world a better place in which to live and helping others – can be achieved in this field.”

When tweens and young teens are intermixed on a team with high school students, the combination is often effective and enlightening for all of the competitors, Stanley said.

“Often a middle school girl’s approach to robotics problem-solving is unique to that of a high school male’s,” she said. “Together there’s great synergy of minds. Middle school students often communicate their ideas boldly. It makes for a great team dynamic.”

   Last year’s robotics premise was Bot Guy’s (the competition’s mascot) trip to Mars. This year, Mayer said, Bot Guy is acclimating to being back on Earth. Required scenarios and tasks required of the students’ robots this year include assisting Bot Guy working out on a weight bench, picking up hangers and more.

   “We really appreciate the time, expertise and support of our mentors and their emphasis on making sure the kids are the ones doing the work on their bots,” he said. “Because on competition day, the adults are in the seats watching, and it’s all up to the students.”

More than 8,000 middle and high school students around the world participate in KISS Botball competitions.

   The SIUE School of Engineering offers one of the most comprehensive and affordable engineering programs in the St. Louis region with eight undergraduate degrees, five master’s degrees and a cooperative doctoral program, all housed in a state-of-the-art facility. Students learn from expert faculty, perform cutting-edge research, and participate in intercollegiate design competitions. Companies in the metropolitan St. Louis area provide students challenging internships and co-op opportunities, which often turn into permanent employment. All undergraduate programs are accredited by their respective accreditation agencies.

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