If you give a bot a basketball...

They're hardly Kobe and Shaq, but these robots can fling a Nerf ball--and inspire kids to learn science, too. Photos: Bots hit the court

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
5 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--If you want a glimpse of the future of technology in the United States, look no further than the Ice Weasels, Space Cookies and Cheesy Poofs.

No, these aren't code names of secret projects at Google. They're the names of high school teams competing here this weekend for top merit in the 15th annual robotics contest sponsored by FIRST (For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. With about $10,000 worth of donated hardware and software, high school students were given roughly six weeks to assemble a functioning robot that can move around a court and shoot Nerf basketballs for points, which is this year's chosen game.

Robot competition

"They give you a game that's too hard, with a time line too short and too much stuff, and the kids have to do what they can with it," said Jon Rockman, a physics teacher at the all-girls high school Castilleja in Palo Alto, Calif. Rockman is also team adviser to the green-clad Gatorbotics.

The kooky team names and oddly challenging game belie the genuine techno wizardry and teamwork on display Thursday at San Jose University's event center, where 40 teams of freshmen to seniors are playing practice rounds and refining their robots for Friday and Saturday's Silicon Valley regionals. The contest is designed to inspire kid's interest in math, science and technology.

The youngsters' enthusiasm for their robots offers a ray of hope for the future of science and math in the United States at a time when many educators are concerned about test scores and flailing interest among young people in the fields.

Still, it's a truly odd scene, much like a cross between a Nickelodeon fun house and a BattleBot show. The field of play is about the size of a small soccer field, but it's hardly intimidating, cluttered with candy-colored Nerf balls. Instead of bot fights, the robots try to throw the Nerfs through round holes in translucent walls at each end of the field, and electronic scoreboards on the wall tick higher when a ball makes it through.

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Video: Competing robots?
Watch as high school students compete under this year's contest theme: "Aim High," a combination of basketball, soccer and hockey--with robots as the players.

A giant overhead video screen and clubby rave music in the background add a teeny-bopper MTV concert feel. If they're not playing a practice round, high school students clad in jeans and team T-shirts are either milling around (sometimes in hand-holding pairs) or engrossed in welding, drilling or just fiddling with their bots. If they're practicing, kids are simultaneously cheering on their robots and throwing Nerf balls back onto the field so the bots can scoop them up for another shot.

The competition is a community effort. Part of the challenge is for teens to find and work with mentors who are experts in technology and science.

The Gatorbotics, for example, have been working with Emily Moth, an engineer at Ideo in Palo Alto. Homestead High School in Cupertino, Calif., worked with Ron Crane, one of the founders of 3Com. Homestead's team is sponsored by Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, who is an alumnus of the school.

The Space Cookies, part of the Girl Scouts, have worked with Bob Reklis, a retired tech engineer from Lockheed Martin. The Janksters have Nick Konidaris, an astronomer, and Steven Trimburger, a computer engineer, as mentors.

To compete, teams must pony up $6,000 for registration and any other amount up to $3,500 needed to augment the initial supplies. Once registered, the teams are given three boxes of hardware and software, including motors, wheels, a transmission and a radio controller and control board. They are given engineering software and a programming language called Easy C that allows them to write a program for the robot's onboard computer.

Apple promo

Also included is Autodesk's 3D Max Studio animation software so the teens can create a 30-second animation on the subject of ideas. Kids are also judged on their animation.

The game itself is roughly two minutes long, with two robots that are 2 feet wide by 4 feet high on the field. For the first 10 seconds, the robots must run in autonomous mode and make as many baskets as possible. The robot with the most points from the first 10 seconds then gets to play offense, while the team runs it by radio control. The other bot plays defense.

"This game is more challenging than most," said Jim Beck, regional director for the game and an employee of NASA Ames Research, which has been involved with the event since 1998. NASA is sponsoring two teams at this year's contest--the Space Cookies and the Cheesy Poofs.

The Cheesy Poofs, a team of 40 from Bellerman High School in San Jose, are the Yankees of the Silicon Valley regional finals, having won the last seven years in a row. Justin Larente, a high school senior, said that his team's robot can shoot 15 balls into a hoop in four to five seconds with 100 percent accuracy. Still, the robots can only have 10 balls onboard at any one time during play.

"Our autonomous mode is our Achilles Heel," Larente said.

Winning bots will go on to duke it out at Atlanta's Georgia Dome at the international finals in April.

Ingenuity is a big factor. The Janksters, for example, pulled from the $10,000 donated by Google to buy and incorporate fishing line into the bot. They also used bicycle inner tubes to make a conveyor belt that can pick up the balls off the floor and put them into a queue for shooting. The girls sewed blue sheath fabric onto the robot.

But it seemed the Janksters' favorite experience of the competition was within the team's cold, dank workroom that had been converted from a garage in the maintenance wing of their school. They affectionately call it "the black hole."

"It's where we get our best ideas," said Bethany Nagid, a 15-year-old Jankster member with braces.

Sounds like Nagid's ready for her first Silicon Valley garage-based start-up.