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.
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.
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).