Dr. Dick Solomon: This planet has crossed the line. Assemble the giant robot!
Sally Solomon: Um... we didn't pack it. You wanted the room for your exercise bike.
--Third Rock From the Sun, “Assault With A Deadly Dick” (4/30/96)
Recently, Wife and I were recruited to become judges at a robotics competition.
The Baltimore City Public School system got a Title I grant to provide some extra learning for some of our students. One of the programs that was developed from the grant was a robotics program, which was held at several middle schools and middle-level classes in K-8 schools throughout the city. At the end of the program, the students brought their creations to the State Fair grounds for a competition. There were two grades of prizes to be won: one for the competitions, and another batch of judges’ prizes, based on construction, innovation, a team’s willingness to support other teams, and so on. A couple of prizes were also given out to teachers whose participation was obvious and outstanding during the competition.
So for six weeks, inner-city kids who had probably never dreamed of doing something like this worked on designing, and building, their own robots for competition. Some students took it upon themselves (or the teacher went the extra mile to teach them) and actually did some programming of the robots. (Because six weeks is a relatively short period of time for something like this, they weren’t expected to program their own robots for this event.) Let me tell you, we were looking at some motivated, focused, enthusiastic kids.
The robots were controlled by remotes each of which had about ten buttons and two joysticks on them, and every switch had some kind of purpose. In the picture here, you can see that the were supposed to pick up the plastic rings and place them over goal posts. They could also get points for hanging off the bars on the ladder in the middle of the playing field. If the robot could reach the green bar, extra points.
As the competition neared the end, students were expected to pair up with another team and their robot for the final showdowns. Consequently the students had to think about their robot’s capabilities and whether they meshed well with their selected partner’s robot. Some robots are good at offense (e.g. scooping up a ring and putting it on the post); others are good at defense (e.g. running interference or removing rings from posts, which is a legal move).
So over the two days, Wife and I (and about ten others) interviewed kids, interviewed teachers, watched the gameplay, then went to a separate building and deliberated for hours over the different prizes. Some of us were interviewed by the Baltimore Sun (I was one of them, but none of the judges’ quotes were used—although my picture did appear in the print edition), a few of us (not me) were interviewed by local TV reporters, and the final robot showdowns, and the awarding of prizes, were all aired on local cable TV (Channel 77, if you have Comcast and live within City Limits). Even Wee One got in on the action, volunteering as one of the people who would re-set one of the playing fields following a match.
It was exhausting, but incredibly fun and I’m hoping that we can do it again next year. My only regret is that none of the robots looked like this:
Because that? Would have been cool.