Take me out to the ‘Botball’ game: Robotics competition fuels STEM interests

The KISS Institute for Practical Robotics (KIPR) unleashed hundreds of robots in Norman at the recent Global Conference on Educational Robotics.

The event brought 700 school aged software engineers to Oklahoma from around the world.

Students from elementary age to high school competed in an international robotics competition called “Botball,” in which autonomous robots they designed, built and programmed attempted to tackle the task of cleaning up a virtual “city” that had been ravaged by flooding.

I was there at the invitation of my friends at the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) for the opportunity to see some student-built robots in action.

A student team makes last-second adjustments to their robot before the Botball tournament begins.

While students saw Botball as a fun and challenging competition, the KIPR Institute describes it as a “standards-based” STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education program.

“What is awesome about Botball, I have students that are writing code and doing all of this in the third grade,” said Steve Goodgame, executive director of the KIPR Institute. “I had a college student who came in earlier and said he was working with the elementary students and ‘my gosh, that’s what I was doing as a freshman in college and these third graders are doing it.’”

The KIPR Institute hosts STEM events throughout the year and regional Botball competitions from which top teams qualify for the International competition.

The Institute has a mission to improve the public’s understanding of STEM and “develop the skills, character and aspirations of students” while contributing to the enrichment of schools and the community.

Teams from Canada, Mexico, Qatar, Kuwait, China, Poland, Austria, Africa, Taiwan and across the United States came to Norman for this year’s event, which also included an aerial drone competition and international keynote speakers.

Of course, there’s a bottom line to all the Botball fun. And that’s the acquisition of STEM skills that help create a workforce prepared for the career demands of the future.

“We are teaching a bunch of skills they can put in their tool box that they can use when they start innovating new companies, new ideas and new technologies,” Goodgame said. “It’s imperative that we as a state prepare our younger students as they age up and get these skills so we have a talented workforce that understands computer science.”

For Gillian Melendez, a 16-year-old junior-to-be from Xavier College Prep in Coachella Valley, Calif., the International Botball experience provided the opportunity to meet like-minded students from around the world and pursue her interest in software coding.

“I started when I was in 6th grade and I fell in love with it,” Melendez said. “Most girls aren’t into robotics because it’s nerdy, but I fell in love.  I love to code.”

Melendez was one of two girls on the six-person “G-Force” team from Coachilla Valley.

Norman native Braden McDorman is Exhibit A that Botball is an effective strategy for building STEM skills.

Braden McDorman is an entrepreneur who learned coding from his Botball experience

McDorman began competing in Botball in middle school, and today is co-founder and chief technology officer of a robotics software startup called Semio.

“I started Botball in sixth grade at Whittier Middle School and did it all through high school,” McDorman said. “Then I got an internship at KIPR working on software in high school and continued while I was working on my undergraduate degree at OU.”

McDorman’s path took him to the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics in high school and then on to a computer science degree at the University of Oklahoma. He also serves as a KIPR instructor for regional Botball competitions in Southern California, and co-founded Los Angeles-based Semio with another Botball alumnus.

“I’m working on a startup all because of Botball, actually,” McDorman said. “It’s a game that teaches everything you need to know to do real science, real programming. It’s the perfect way to prepare for a career in STEM.”

(Full disclosure: I write about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).




A typo and a Confederacy of Dunces — 2019

We needed to change a single letter in a name. A typo. We wanted to change an “A” to an “O,” correcting the misspelling “Soloman” to “Solomon” on a birth certificate and Social Security card issued to my newborn grandson, Solomon James Stafford.

The bureaucracy conspired against our efforts to make it happen. We had to make five separate trips to state and federal offices to get it corrected.

Let me start at the beginning.

rejectedMy daughter gave birth to a baby on May 29, a boy who was born two months premature. The hospital sent a person around to inquire about the name shortly after he was born. Both my daughter and my wife told her that he was to be Solomon James Stafford and spelled it out.


Somehow, Solomon became Soloman before it was turned into the state for an official birth certificate. That misspelling was picked up by the Social Security Administration, which promptly printed out a new SS card in the wrong name and mailed it to us.

The effort to correct the spelling turned into an odyssey that began with our initial trip to the records department at the Oklahoma Health Department and ended up with four trips to the Social Security office before the “a” could be corrected to an “o.”

Here’s how it happened.

At the state records office, my daughter filled out the form requesting a corrected birth certificate, and we paid our $30 for two copies and then went to the window to obtain the documents.

After a short wait of just a few minutes, the woman behind the glass gave the new birth certificates to my daughter and we were off! As we walked out, I told Sarah that she should check the spelling just to make sure that it was correct on the corrected version.

She opened the folder and then stopped dead in her tracks. I looked. It read “Soloman James Stafford.”

I looked back and no one was at the window yet, so I ran back and told the attendant that the new birth certificate we received had the same misspelling. When my daughter walked up, she was told to go pay the fee once again, then get back in line.

Sarah fought back tears and an urge to scream at someone, went back and paid a new fee for corrected birth certificates, then got back in line, which had grown considerably. Turns out, this time the wait was about 35 minutes, but we ended up with two birth certificates with the correct spelling of Solomon James Stafford.

Then we headed to the Social Security office. Bad news. Sarah was told that a birth certificate is not acceptable to change a name. We needed an official document from the hospital.

So, we drove back to Mercy Hospital and asked for an official document with a doctor’s signature as proof of birth. A nurse gave us a certificate that had the doctor’s signature, the seal of the hospital and included Solomon’s footprints.

Nailed it! Or so we thought. We were rejected for a second time at the Social Security office because the document the hospital gave us was a “souvenir,” as the attendant described it. “That’s not an acceptable federal document,” he told us.

Back to the hospital, where we went straight to the health records office and asked for something – anything – that the Social Security Administration would accept. I was given a couple of printouts that included the doctor’s notes from the birth and an immunization record. The doctor’s signature was electronic and the document did not have a name or hospital seal on it.

But that’s what we received. By now, I had gone out of town on a trip, so my wife took over and went with Sarah back to the Social Security office.

Of course, the documents were rejected again.

This time, Paula went straight to the hospital and requested to talk to an administrator. She told them about our plight and the need for a signature and an official hospital seal with Solomon’s name on it. The hospital had to create such a document and did.

Paula took that back to the Social Security office and it was finally accepted as official. I was still on my trip out of town when my daughter texted me the words “FIFTH TIME IS A CHARM!” I called her back and learned that baby Solomon (allegedly) would soon be receiving a new Social Security card with the correct spelling of his name.

I’ll call this lunacy a Confederacy of Dunces after my favorite book, because the system set us up for failure time after time.  

Baby Solomon, it will be years before you realize the challenges that we faced to correct a random typo of a single letter in your name. But we got it done. You’re welcome.