For those who know me well, you know that sports have never been my thing. My older brother was athletic so in order to avoid competition, I avoided almost all forms of competition. It didn’t help much, my parents still compared us, but at least I wasn’t trying to directly compete or be like him. I tried my best to learn from my older brother by not doing anything he did.
I joke about my lack of knowledge when it comes to any sports. I know the basic rules of the important “All-American” sports but don’t really follow any. I know who my local sports franchises are and firmly believe that their business model is a little skewed since they make millions of dollars and still ask for handouts from the communities they live in, holding us hostage with threats of leaving if they don’t get tax breaks or bigger stadiums or key players out of jail, or whatever. I find it sad that many of my students nowadays think that their only way to be successful is through sports and pour more effort into (pick a sport) than learning. In my teaching career I have personally taught one child who became a professional athlete. 26 years of teaching, average of 24 kids in each class (actually a lot more since for about 6 years I taught every student in a school of around 700)- only one that I know of went pro. Last week I had a chance to check out a sport/competition that I think is worthy of not only our support as a community, but also one that might actually make the world a better place… Robotics.
Last week I started off by dropping by a robotics camp being put on by our local high school. The camp dealt with VEX robotics and instead of dropping by, I decided to help out where I could for the week. The campers formed teams and designed and built their own robots to complete a task. The competition had the robots move balls around the field and put them in a goal. At the end the robots had to knock a “bonus ball” into the play, score with it and return to their starting place before time ran out. Rounds were 2 minutes each and the robots were each controlled via a game controller by a “pilot.”
Throughout the week the teams of campers designed and redesigned their robot, trying out different things. Some teams were very flexible while others stuck with the same idea thinking if they try hard enough it will work. ”Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein, one of the team captains reminded me of this quote at the start of camp, yet, his team was one that never varied from their initial design, even when it wasn’t as successful as the others on the field of play. The hardest part, as an adult, was to try to lead them down the path of discovery subtly without saying- “Look, your design isn’t working. You have time, try something else.” In the end there was a brief competition, a winning team was determined, and candy bars were given out to the winners.
So, how is this different than many other “sports”? Well, first all the competition isn’t cutthroat. Each team (robot) competed in rounds in an alliance with (by the time all the rounds finished) all the other teams (robots) at the camp. Your team received points for the alliance winning. Scoring was 2 points for winning, 1 point for a tie, and 0 points for a loss. The Idea was to help every team to be better because you didn’t want to lose any match, so you would want to play with a strongest teammate you could. At the ages these kids were at, that was a difficult concept for them to grasp- you wanted everyone to be strong because in the end, the best robot would win- every match, no matter who they were paired with. In the end the oldest group of students were the winners, experience triumphing over youth.
Friday found the group at the Indiana Robotics Invitational and here, while the overall goal was similar, the robots were more complex since the task put before them was much more complex. The competition here put three teams (robots) on each side working to get as many points as possible. The round was divided into basically two sections (automated and piloted). The round began with the robots running a program for 15 seconds, then the human pilots took over. The goal- score as many points as possible. How? Well this year (each year the task is different) the robots were designed and built to throw a frisbee through a target. That was the first goal, three targets, get as many frisbees as possible through the targets. The course also had two towers, points could be gained by getting a frisbee to the top of the tower, but wait, there’s more. Just as the campers could gain points for being back in their parking place, these robots got points for hanging from the tower, the higher the robot was, the more points you received.
I know there was more to it than that, but basically that’s what had to happen. So how does that make it world changing? Let’s think about the end results from participating in competitive robotics. You learn practical applications of Science, Math, Engineering and Technology. You gain skills that could help you get into a good college and when you get out actually produce something for the betterment of mankind, not just throw a ball around until your arm (or knees or back) goes out, then sit around talking about your glory days. You could take what you learned and still use it even when you’re old and grey filled with aches and pains.
I never played sports (fine full disclosure- I played soccer in 3rd & 4th grade and briefly tried springboard diving and swimming, I was lousy) – like I said, that was my brother’s thing. So I don’t understand the competitive culture behind sports, but even now at the elementary school I see the cliques forming- the kids who are told by their pee wee league coach to wear their jerseys to school the Friday before a game, to impress everyone. Fights and trash talking happen between rival teams and this is at elementary school… so sad. I’m waiting for someone to get the bright idea of taking out a key player during recess, so their team can win. I did not see signs at the robotics competition reminding parents that it is only a game. Then again these kids were not the all-star varsity lettering BMOCs and bullies, these were geeks and nerds, people with a passion for engineering and for computers, and yes, there were girls in the mix too. I would suggest finding out if your local school has a robotics program and go talk to the kids and the mentors. I’m sure you’d be amazed at what they are doing. Unlike most high school sports, this is a program I can actually see a benefit, and will support my local team. Try this- instead of buying a jersey with the number of some guy who will retire or be traded in a few seasons (causing you to have to buy another jersey), take that money and make a donation to your local high school robotics program. Our robot overlords would approve and might let you live after they take over.
One of the Semifinal Matches at the IRI video of the entire event can be found on their YouTube Channel
If you want more information about Robotics Programs for students check out-
US FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) – One of the governing bodies for Robotics Competitions at the high school level
VEX Robotics – Another governing body that has programs for elementary schools all the way up to high schools
FIRST LEGO League – A competition for elementary school students put on by FIRST using LEGO Mindstorms robots
Jr. FIRST LEGO League – A competition dealing with engineering concepts (pre-robotics) using LEGO bricks for students from 1st to 3rd grade.