Educator Features

Having a Ball With Robots
08.22.06
A student prepares a robot for competition
Are you ready for some Botball?

What is Botball? It's an exciting game with an unusual twist -- it's played by robots. Teams of students build and program robots to compete with opponents on a field the size of a ping-pong table.

Image to left: Students at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School were honored for their claw design at the regional tournament. Credit: NASA

This year's challenge is "Search and Rescue," in which robots must work autonomously to locate a plush robot named Botguy and his pom-pom "Tribble" friends, while also gathering supplies. The challenge is to complete tasks and score points before the opposing robots do.

Botball isn't all fun and games though. It's also a hands-on learning experience in robotics designed to engage middle and high school students in learning the practical applications of science, technology, engineering and math.

Related Resources
+ NASA Education Web site

+ Robotics Alliance Project

+ NASA Education -- Robotics

+ Botball Homepage

+ NASA Explorer Schools
NASA Explorer Schools in Hawaii have become very involved in the Botball competition, which is particularly fitting because NES was instrumental in establishing a Botball regional competition in the state.

Art Kimura is an education specialist at the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium and the co-director of the Hawaiian Botball regional tournament. Kimura first heard about Botball when he attended a session on robotics during an NES workshop at NASA's Ames Research Center. He left the workshop interested in bringing a regional tournament to his state, but he wasn't sure if enough interest could be generated there to make it a reality.

"I returned to Hawaii, not at all optimistic about it," Kimura said, "but quickly found out that there was interest among schools, including the two Hawaii NES schools." Around 40 teachers responded to an e-mail he sent out telling about the program and asking if anyone would be interested in it. He then followed up with the Botball organizer, the KISS ("Keep It Simple, Stupid") Institute for Practical Robotics. "We were also fortunate to very quickly generate the needed partners after discussions about our starting a new regional (tournament) and associated costs," he said. The program received support from the University of Hawaii's College of Engineering, the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium, the Hawaiian Electric Company and the Hawaii Convention Center. NASA has provided financial aid that has assisted Hawaii teams with registration costs for the past three years. NASA has been a national Botball sponsor for the past eight years.

Four volunteers watch a robot on a tournament table
Image to left: Volunteers from local schools and businesses are an important part of the Botball tournaments. Credit: NASA

From that beginning three years ago, Botball in Hawaii has continued to grow. More than 20 schools have entered the annual competition, one of 13 regional tournaments held in the United States. The Hawaii legislature passed a resolution supporting robotics education that resulted in the state's Department of Education forming a robotics education committee.

The state's first two NASA Explorer Schools, Waimea Middle School in Kamuela and Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Lihue, have competed in the program for three years. (Hawaii's third NASA Explorer School, Pearl City Elementary School, was selected this year.) Both of the first two schools have established after-school robotics clubs, and Waimea has added an eighth-grade robotics class to its curriculum. In the 2006 regional tournament, Waimea won the Special Judge's Award for Team Spirit and Chiefess Kamakahelei was awarded the Special Judge's Award for Best Claw Design.

"The Botball program has been an avenue for our students to broaden their horizons in many areas," said Jade Bowman, the NES team lead at Waimea Middle School. "They have been exposed to new careers, learned how to use a variety of technology, gained self-confidence, become complex thinkers, and have learned the importance of being a team player while creating lasting friendships and networks amongst their peers.

"Botball has helped to get our school in the spotlight in terms of showing the 'good' things that happen at school," she said. "Too many times the focus is on what's not working at a school; but Botball shows what's working well and how it brings together the school, families and community. Our students have done numerous community-sponsored events and love being a part of it all through the robotic program and have enjoyed sharing it with their friends, classmates, family and the community. Students said that the best part about the Botball program was not just that they learned STEM-related skills, but that they made long-lasting friendships with a lot of people who will stay in their hearts and minds for a long time to come."

A robot on a Botball field
Image to right: Botball competitions take place on a "field" the size of a ping-pong table. Credit: NASA

Hawaii is even taking on an important role in national Botball -- the 2007 national tournament will be held in Honolulu. The National Conference on Educational Robotics will be held July 9-13, 2007, at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu. The conference will include the national Botball tournament, the Beyond Botball tournament for college students and other adults, workshops and seminars, poster sessions, and a robotics showcase.

Botball teams built their robots from an official kit. The kit includes 1,800 LEGO® building blocks, two "Xport Botball Controllers," or XBCs, attached to Nintendo® Game Boy Advance devices, and 20 sensors, including color recognition cameras. Students use the pieces to build their robots, and then program them using a version of the C computer language.

Through NASA Explorer Schools and the Robotics Alliance projects, NASA continues the agency's tradition of investing in the nation's education programs. It is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or "STEM") disciplines. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations, and career ambitions of America's young people, NASA is focused on engaging and retaining students in STEM education programs to encourage their pursuit of educational disciplines critical to NASA's future engineering, scientific and technical missions.

Almost a third of all students who have participated in Botball have said that the program has influenced their choice of careers. So while the students are building their robots, they're also helping to build the technical workforce of tomorrow.

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services