PROGRAMMED TO HAVE FUN

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By KEVIN FORD

LOWELL- They'd been up since 4 a.m., traveling by both car and boat to get there. They sweat through more than two hours of competition, in a mix of jubilance and nervous despair. Each danced precipitously close to elimination, only to come back and stay alive. Now, in the last minutes of the tournament, two teams were set to face off for the championship.

The lights went on, the contestants lurched forward, and the crowd erupted into shouts of "Go, Go, Go!" Obstacles fell, balls rolled into end zones, and team members gritted their teeth as they looked on.

After 90 seconds, it was over, and the team from Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School emerged victorious over their male counterparts.

The storybook ending capped off an exciting afternoon of scholastics and sportsmanship at Botball 2003, the Massachusetts Regional Botball Tournament, held yesterday in the Campus Recreation Center at UMass Lowell.

The competition featured robots designed and programmed entirely by students from 11 different schools throughout the state.

For the winners, their victory was a sweet surprise.

"We didn't even come here thinking we'd get anywhere," said a delirious Alex Luce, 14, of Martha's Vineyard.

Luce was one of three "honorary girls" added to bolster the otherwise thin team. His teammate Chris Conklin, 15, added that they hadn't gotten very far at last year's event.

Though Luce referred to Conklin as the team's mastermind, both boys emphasized that their female teammates did all the construction on "Phelix," their winning robot.

Such news was sure to please organizer Holly Yanco, a professor of computer science who brought Botball to UMass Lowell last year.

"I'd like to see more girls participate," she said. "We're trying to encourage schools to get girls involved with this."

A national program begun in Florida in 1997, Botball has grown to include more than 200 schools participating in 12 regional tournaments. Organizers say it not only teaches students about programming and engineering, but also about management and teamwork.

In Botball, student-designed robots are placed on a 4-foot-by-8-foot surface. A flash of light bulbs at each end of the table tells sensors on the robots that competition has begun. Each match lasts 90 seconds, with points awarded for feats such as knocking over colored tubes filled with pingpong balls and lifting foam balls into baskets raised over the playing surface.

All robots are programmed prior to the match, but laptops in the waiting area allow teams to make adjustments.

Though the team from Lowell's Robinson Middle School didn't make the final round of competition, team members more than earned the "Sportsmanship Award" presented at the closing ceremony.

"This is awesome!" exclaimed Steve McGarry, 13. "We didn't expect to win anything."

Added teammate Andrew Bullock, 12, "It doesn't matter if we came in first or last. We tried our best."

Both students are already looking forward to next year's competition.