? International competition July 14-17 in Jacksonville, Fla.

By Tony Pennington

Transcript Staff Writer

With the International Botball tournament a week away, the Norman High School team met for one last tweak session Wednesday.

Huddled around a mock-up of the competition field they will face in Jacksonville, Fla., the students put "Gibby" and "Big Frigging Arm" through their programmed paces and carefully examined last minute adjustments to the robotic game plan. And like many contestants before a big game, this team is eager to get things started.

"We've been working hard on (the robots)," said team programmer Jorge Villatoro in a break from examining lines of code on a laptop computer. "We do have a little bit of work to do, but we are pretty much ready."

Botball is a team sport that allows students to expand their knowledge of math, science and computers through practical applications. Students design, construct and program remote-free robots to complete various tasks on a ping-pong table sized playing field in under 90 seconds.

Norman will join more than 30 other teams competing in the International Botball Tournament to be held in conjunction with the 2005 National Conference on Educational Robotics July 14-17 on the campus of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

"It's just a fun trip," said recent graduate Villatoro, 18. "We have a really good chance, but I don't have high expectations."

Not having high expectations is a little odd for the team that broke out into the NHS fight song in February when they captured the Overall Judges' Trophy for Most Outstanding Robots at the 2005 Botball Tournament in Oklahoma City, but there is reason. At last year's national conference, the team was humbled by a poor showing.

"I think we have a better chance this year," said team designer John Romanishin, 16, junior. He said the team has learned to adapt designs and programming after each competition. "We learned how other teams might do things. We applied it and got better. Even if we lose, it's a great experience."

Gibby is a product of the team's new streamlined approach to the game. Juan, Gibby's predecessor, was too smart for Botball. The robot's higher functions slowed down its performance because it was thinking too much and not reacting.

"We made it a lot simpler," Villatoro said. "It's best to go with something that's simple and reliable."

Another lesson learned from past competitions is relaxation. Late night work sessions that led to preventable errors have been replaced with a more productive and less sleep-deprived schedule. While in Jacksonville, the team will take a few days to see the beach and visit NASA.

"They put enough pressure on themselves," said team sponsor and NHS physics teacher David Askey. His role is to make sure the students have enough supplies and place to work. "It's a reward for a year of hard work. I want them to have fun."

Sophomore Brenna Wallach, 15, is looking forward to meeting other students, seeing new designs and spending a few days in Florida. "It's a learning experience," the designer said. "I think we are pretty well off ... anything can happen. I'm confident. If we don't win this year, there's always next."

Tony Pennington 366-3541 schools@normantranscript.com

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