The field house at UMASS Lowell is usually a place to see athletes compete, but on a recent Saturday (April 30) robots of various designs could be seen climbing ramps and over obstacles; picking up, pushing, and dumping objects; and swinging mechanical arms in the New England Regional Botball Tournament. This year, Haverhill Robotics competed in the day-long event against 18 other teams, surviving multiple matches to win a fourth place finish in the double-elimination rounds. For the second year in a row, Haverhill also won the Spirit of Botball trophy for helping other teams.
In BotBall, students engineer, build, and program two robots to address various challenges on a table-top course. During competition, the robots are “autonomous” – following instructions programmed into their software before the match begins. This year’s course and challenges were based on the popular movie, The Martian. Robots had to move dirt and water into an area to grow potatoes, retrieve an oxygen generator and radioisotope thermoelectric generator, and climb from the bottom of a crater to the rim to sweep dust off solar panels. All the objects to be manipulated were represented by foam cubes, balls, and pompoms. The New England Regional Tournament is sponsored by eleven sponsors including NASA, iRobot, and UMASS Lowell.
At the Botball kickoff in January, students and their coach go to UMASS Lowell to learn about the year’s challenges, have a lesson in programming, and get the design for the course. They build a practice course in the Robotics lab at HHS on an 8′ by 8′ white board surface out of pvc pipe and other materials, and populate it with objects that can be moved from place to place by a cleverly designed and programmed robot. At the competition, coaches are not allowed into the “pit” to assist their teams and the students must solve problems that develop themselves or with the help of other teams.
Haverhill Robotics has 28 members, coached by teacher Cliff Ashbrook. The team is in its 8th year as part of the Access 21 after-school program at Haverhill High School. Access 21 is supported by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Haverhill Robotics is also sponsored by the Haverhill Education Foundation. A feeder Robotics program at Consentino middle school, serves 12 students per trimester. Students from the high school program act as instructors for the middle school students under the supervision of a Consentino teacher. The high school team was invited to speak about their experiences at a state-wide conference of 21st Century grantees this winter. Donations to support Haverhill Robotics can be made to the Haverhill Education Foundation by clicking on the Donate button.
Most teenagers are sound asleep at 3:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, but not the 17 Haverhill Robotics students, scheduled to attend an early morning field trip to MIT in Cambridge on January 25th. They had an important appointment with the International Space Station and astronauts Scott Kelly (USA) and Mikhail Kornienko (Russia).
Students in Haverhill Robotics at Haverhill High School have been meeting six hours a week since October to work on a world-wide challenge, sponsored by NASA, MIT, and the European Space Agency. In the Zero Robotics competition, students use simulation software to program a spherical robot to meet designated challenges by moving in specific ways in “zero” gravity. If a team advances in the competition, they collaborate with two other successful teams in Alliances, communicating by email and Skype to devise code that will instruct their robot to garner the most points.
Haverhill began the Zero Robotics challenge last fall competing with 171 teams. After several rounds of scrimmages, 123 of these teams were eliminated. Of the six teams from Massachusetts that participated initially, only Haverhill survived to participate in an Alliance. Haverhill secured a place as a finalist in one of 16 Alliances, made up of 48 teams, in groups of three. About half the finalists were from the United States, and half were from Europe, with one team from Australia.
In a series of elimination rounds, astronauts Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko ran the students’ code on a pair of robots in zero gravity. The robots are about the size of soccer balls, one blue and one orange. The students watch both a live feed from the ISS and a computer-generated simulation. Although Haverhill’s Alliance, Kuhl-Wall-Hill did not advance further, their score did fall at about the mid-point of the scores of all the competing Alliances from around the world. Haverhill’s Alliance partners, including team Wall-E from Sicily, traveled to MIT for the event.
Astronaut Mike Fincke attended the MIT gathering to meet with students and tell them about his 20 year career with NASA and his experiences in space travel. Colonel Fincke is a graduate of MIT with Masters degrees from Stanford and the University of Houston. He has spent a total of 381 days in orbit and logged 48 hours of EVA time on nine spacewalks.
Haverhill Robotics is an activity of the Access 21 and Discovery Club after-school programs, funded by 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants from the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, with additional support from the Haverhill Education Foundation. Cliff Ashbrook coaches the high school program. Twenty-eight students at the high school and twelve students at Consentino Middle School participate in Robotics. Two students in Haverhill Robotics at the high school teach Robotics in the Consentino program.