it. Smash it. Better yet, build it and smash someone else's. That's
probably one of the first engineering projects you didas a child,
with blocks or Legos. Turns out, that process holds a lifelong fascination
for a lot of engineers and would-be engineers, especially if it's
done with robotics. It's called BattleBots, and if you're
looking for another way to pump up your students, you probably should
check it out.
has long been recognized as a catalyst for educational excellence and
enthusiasm. There are currently over 60 robot competitions around the
country, with design specs and competition goals varying widely. Some
are built to perform specific tasks, some are remote-controlled, and
some are true robots, made for particular and autonomous functions.
But the underlying appeal of building robots is universal. David Calkins,
the president of the Robotics Society of America, says robot sports
in all forms are about design and thinking.
founders Trey Roski and Greg Munson, 30-something cousins, started the
craze in the late 90s for the same reason they used to bounce
remote controlled cars off curbs. Now, they find their high-tech cockfights
being touted as a teaching tool. The educational payoffs may have been
unplanned, but Roski nevertheless seized the opportunity. Techno-carnage
may still be the first draw, but the two founders know on which side
of the robotic bread to find their butter. To me, BottleBots is
about education, Roski told the New York Times in an interview
earlier this year. We're teaching kids to think.
to inspiring McDonald's popular line of BattleBots toys named Ankle
Biter and BioHazard last year, Roski and Munson have
extended their concept to high schoolers, starting a curriculum-based
spinoff dubbed BattleBots IQ. The program, extolling the educational
and personal development virtues of building and battling buzz-saw-wielding
machines of destruction, is expected to grow from 17 schools in its
first year to 50 schools next year, complete with a television show
aimed at the Saturday morning crowd.
is beautifully simplesome would say instinctualand it adapts
well to a television format that draws 3.5 million viewers each week
to its time slot on cable television's Comedy Central. Who knew
that by inviting techno-lovers to build robotic devices and pitting
them against others in gladiator-style combat, you could turn human
remote-controllers into television heroes?
year, the competition at the biannual tournaments grew from 150 contestants
to 500. And in the three years since the first competition, entrants
have ranged from aeronautical engineers at NASA to a high school team.
If you've got the smarts, a way to fund the materials, and a hundred
bucks to enter, BattleBots can make you a star.
are real warrior rumbles, with the action centering around two remote-controlled
robots hell-bent on destroying each other. In a 48-square-foot ring
of bulletproof Lexan polycarbonate, four weight categories of competitors
buzz toward and around each other, spin-punching and spike-jabbing,
while dodging spinning saw blades, screws and hammers that rise randomly
from the floor of the arena. It's a fight to the death, with a
lusty crowd of spectators roaring toward a finish of the face-off.
glamour of car racing or wrestling is here, with all the pit-stop touches
of real sport. Strobe lights rake the fighting ring, bouncing off 24-foot-high
walls that shield the spectators from orbiting bits of destruction.
Machines with names like Killerhurtz and Tetanus
are rated via superimposed graphics, and as the action heats up, umpires
in striped shirts count down time on the mat. A slamcam
gives a geek-eye view of speed and direction. Just outside the plastic
walls, remote-controlled devices are wielded by homemade-T-shirted team
members. Best of all, interviews with the builders whip onto the screen,
giving the TV audience a chance to see and hear just what those understated
guys and girls in glasses were thinking when they engineered their robots.
is often the case with education, it's the journey to the finish
line that counts. And there are a lot of engineering educators who will
vouch for BattleBot's promise. They like to watch it, too. If you're
squeamish about violence and destruction being the centerpiece of BattleBots,
you should know that the program's real-world appeal is widening.
NASA, which is sending the Mars Rover to explore the planet next year,
has arranged with BBIQ to sponsor a competition dubbed How to
Traverse a Mars Landscape that will challenge high school students
to construct lightweight robots.
Mullins and Brian Peterson of the U.S. Air Force Academy engineering
department found the results of participation in BB so positive that
they presented a paper about it at the ASEE conference in June. When
a cadet who had watched the television show wanted to build his own
BattleBot as his capstone senior design project in electrical engineering,
he found a lot of others at the Academy were fans of the show as well.
He and another student solicited and received permission to build robots
and compete in the May 2001 tournament.
manufacture, and competition of their robots, named Mordicus (Latin
for teeth) and SMD (Something Must Die), provided the cadets and the
Air Force Academy with what Mullins and Peterson said was an exceptional
experience that will encourage the engineering department's
participation for several years to come.
at the Air Force Academy saw many payoffs, among them:
Cross-disciplinary engineering: One of the ancillary benefits
of using robots in the classroom lab is that it forces the students
to consider cross-disciplinary issues. Systems engineering takes on
a whole new meaningstudents must address the interfaces between
digital, analog, and mechanical systems, they concluded.
Forced to build the subsystems from scratch (one of the heightened
requirements that normal entrants are not forced to follow): The cadets
conducted extensive research and spent considerable time in the design
and mechanical fabrication of motors, speed controllers, and weapons
systems, including software applications.
Real world application: Building a BattleBot satisfied the goal of
electrical engineering cadets to gain practical experience in
the real world' of engineering problem solving,''
Mullins and Peterson found. A systems failure, a broken spinner, a
badly designed attack or defense mechanism quickly establishes success
or failure. Anticipation of problems is part of the design process.
The cadets found that if it doesn't work in BattleBots, it dies.
Fostering teamwork: BattleBot heads say the competition brings together
isolated brains to work on a common goal. Most teams have more members
than the Air Force Academy teams, and their ability to work through
the production phase together during long hours is legendary. The
competition is to the death, but while the machines are alive, there
is a lively exchange of information, suggestions, and technical assistance.
Mullins and Peterson saw this first hand, as they described. The
experience at the competition was amazing. The students met several
great engineers, ranging from fellow students to seasoned veterans.
All competitors were enthusiastic and willing to help each other.
Competition: The thrill of victory is a great motivator for success.
Watching your creation come to life before an emotionally charged
audience is a high that begs for another hit. Both students
demonstrated outstanding engineering skills by improvising when confronted
with problems not solvable with the spare parts and equipment taken
to the competition.
School reputation and recruitment: The fact that BattleBots is televised
both here and in the U.K. means an added edge and prestige for the
contestants and their schools. The media coverage of the students
was incredible, reported Mullins and Peterson. As a result,
the students have been invited to technology fairs in nearby towns
to expose others students at other universities to engineering applications.
Overall, student enthusiasm is the highest seen in several years,
greatest payoff may be down the road. Participants say that taking part
in the competition boosts the appeal of engineering to prospective students.
Among those who helped start BBIQ for pre-college students is Nola Garcia,
a 40-something mom whose MIT-bound son got her hooked on robot competitions
several years ago. She recalls attending her first BB competition and
getting so interested that she and a girlfriend built and entered their
says the free curriculum and the lure of TV notoriety has triggered
three to four e-mails and phone calls daily from teachers and schools
inquiring about the program. Last year, its first, BBIQ drew approximately
500 students between the ages of 12 and 18, with 47 teams. Over 25 percent
of the kids were girls, a higher percentage than found in most math-
or science-based extracurricular projects.
BBIQ held four one-week sessions of teacher training for a total of
about 100 educators from all over the nation. It's stealth
learning, says Garcia. What kid really cares about the meaning
of Pi until they have to build a robot and figure out its speed?
blood-coursing action of BattleBots pushes kids at all, says Garcia,
it's into engineering. Kids watch World Wrestling Entertainment
and want to go out and beat somebody up, says Garcia. They
watch BattleBots and they want to go out and build a robot.
Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.