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Education Reporter

Home-Grown Students Build Better Robot
NORMAN, OK - The first home-school team ever to participate in the annual Botball National Robotics Tournament placed first in the head-to-head combat championship and second overall in the 2000 competition held Aug. 1-2 in Austin, TX. According to The New American magazine (10-9-00), Botball is the most popular of the new "techno-sports" that are stirring high school students' interest in engineering and science.

Calling themselves the Norman-Area Homeschoolers, the team was unique in that its members (ranging in age from 11 to 16) were younger than their fellow competitors. Equally remarkable was the fact that, excluding siblings, the nine members had not known each other prior to forming the Botball team.

The homeschoolers placed third in the seedings phase of the competition, which tests the robots' "intelligence" under ideal conditions. They were victorious over the number-one seed, Florida's Paxton School for Advanced Studies, in the most difficult phase of the competition, the combat championship, which tests the robots' skills in a hostile environment. The homeschoolers also won the tournament's "judges award" and remained undefeated in the double elimination combat round.

"It [Paxton] had the most intelligent robot I have ever seen," said Michele Moore, mother of one of the team members who was quoted in the Norman Transcript newspaper, "but it could not deal with real life. We defeated it in combat rounds."

The robots were constructed using theories from the Mars Pathfinder Rover project. The Norman Transcript noted that each "was as unique as its programmers and designers, even though the teams received identical kinds of legos, sensors, motors, a microprocessor, software and a manual." Mrs. Moore explained that the Lego kits are actually very challenging. "These aren't the Legos we played with as kids," she said.

Botball competitions are conducted on 8' x 12' boards. The robots score points by correctly performing maneuvers with colored balls and demonstrating both offensive and defensive skills in head-to-head competition. The robots are not remote-controlled, but are programmed to operate autonomously.

While the Paxton robot finished first overall due to the points it accumulated during the seed rounds, members of the Norman Homeschoolers were "justifiably jubilant" at their achievements. A total of 41 teams from 10 states participated in the tournament.

The Oklahoma-based KISS Institute of Practical Robotics - a private organization founded in 1993 - sponsors the national Botball tournament as well as regional competitions. Botball teams can also compete at the annual conference of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (another Botball sponsor), which attracts top U.S. scientists and engineers. The first national Botball tournament was held in 1997.

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