ASEE Prism Magazine - October 2002
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Teaching Toolbox

Crash, BAM, Learn

More and more educators are using BattleBots as a teaching tool, although some are uneasy about violence and destruction being the centerpiece of this robotic competition.

- By Linda Creighton

Build it. Smash it. Better yet, build it and smash someone else's. That's probably one of the first engineering projects you did—as 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.

Robotics 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.

BattleBots' 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.”

In addition 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.

The premise is beautifully simple—some would say instinctual—and 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?

In one 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.

The matches 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.

The earthy 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.

But, as 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.

Barry 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.

The design, 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.”

The professors 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 meaning—students 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,” they concluded.

But the 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 own robot.

Garcia 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.

This summer, 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?”

If the 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.”

 

Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
She can be reached at lcreighton@asee.org.


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