The Norman Transcript

March 10, 2014

Students have a ball at competition

By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Serious but excited students calculated carefully while concentrating on the exact set of commands that would get their robot to lightly place a cluster of doll-size hangers on a rack. If the robot missed its mark, the students would try again with as much energy and intellect as they could muster during the Oklahoma Botball Regional Tournament, which celebrated 20 years and inaugurated the Elementary Botball Challenge on Saturday at Norman High School.

Nearly 90 teams from Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and north Texas competed in the student-built autonomous robotic competition. The Botball tournament challenges students in high-level programming and requires the teams to present their robot’s design and strategy, like real-world engineers. No remote is used to control robots, only code.

This year 22 more teams were able to compete in Botball due to state funding, Steve Goodgame, executive director of KISS Institute for Practical Robotics, said. Middle school and high school students sent their robots through a course where they could lift and move different colored cubes, poms and hangers. The course’s theme followed the story of Botguy’s return from a Mars Sample Return Mission that left him needing physical therapy. Students demonstrated gross motor skills, raising and placing skills, picking up and lowering skills and fine motor skills. Industry professionals from Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon served as judges.

Goodgame said the new Elementary Botball Challenge was developed with the help of the K20 center at the University of Oklahoma and implemented in schools in December. Participating teachers went through workshops and learned a curriculum. 38 elementary schools from across the state registered to compete in Saturday’s competition.

“We’re the first in the nation to offer this type of program to elementary students,” Goodgame said. “It’s about teaching kids to code, but it’s also about empowering teachers so they’re not afraid to code themselves.”

The elementary teams competed in eight challenges ranging from very easy to complex. Challenge one, which was very easy, tasked students with coding their robot so that it would move forward a certain distance, stop and back up then stop again. Challenges advanced to tasking students with programming their robots to move around coke cans and, even more difficult, move around multiple coke cans in a slalom pattern.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of teaching kids code,” Goodgame said. “In China every kid knows how to code. Here we just create an app to do the work for the kids. We’re behind. But the kids in our program have picked it up so fast. It’s just like another language to them.”

Botball is an educational outreach program presented by KISS Institute for Practical Robotics, 1818 W. Lindsey. The mission of this international nonprofit is to improve the public’s understanding of science, math, engineering and technology; develop the skills character and aspirations of students, and contribute to the enrichment of school systems and communities. Every year, the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics host a global conference. This year’s conference will be July 30 to August 3 in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California.

Additionally, the institute hosts Botball competitions all over the world including one in each the Middle East, Africa, Austria and China. Goodgame said all of the tournament courses and progress of the institute comes from the hard work and help of OU students, Dr. David Miller, Wilkonson Chair professor in the OU School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, and Catheryne Stein, co-founder and president of KISS Institute for Practical Robotics.

Botball and the Elementary Botball Challenge are supported by many sponsors including the Kilpatrick Foundation, Best Buy, OU College of Engineering, TFCU, Hitachi, BancFirst, SolidWorks, igus, iRobot, NASA Robotics Alliance Project, Sonic, Arvest, Astellas, Common Sense RC, Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission and the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

For more information about Botball or tournament results, visit or

Katherine Parker



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