A couple weeks ago, photographer Rob Mattson and I spent the afternoon surrounded by middle and high school students who, we're pretty sure, are about 50 times smarter than us.
Their excitement pulsed along with the pop music piped into their hotel conference room. They joked and laughed. Some even wore bright-colored costumes. But their fun was mixed with intense competition, which gave the atmosphere a seriousness you might not commonly associate with teenagers and preteens.
Amongst the laughter was the mechanical whirring of robots these students had built and programmed. Teammates huddled together over their creations and rushed between work stations and competition arenas to test their robots and make final coding adjustments.
This was the Global Conference on Educational Robotics organized by the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics (KIPR) and held July 8-12 in Norman, Oklahoma. Most of these students were there for one of the conference's main events: the International Botball Tournament.
About the Competition
The International Botball Tournament brings in some of the brightest young minds from all over the world – Austria, Canada, China, Kenya, Kuwait, Poland and the U.S. – to show off their computer programming skills in a game designed with challenges that, if successfully completed, earn them points.
In January, KIPR sends out a kit to each of the teams. The kit includes all the materials needed to create two autonomous robots as well as the game pieces for the year. This year, the game's theme was "Robots Assisting a Modern Agricultural Operation," and guess who got to be part of this farm game board. The Noble Research Institute's blue cow!
Students from around the world compete in Botball challenges during the Global Conference on Educational Robotics.
If teams could program their robots to move the blue cow into the "barn" or to the "grazing area," they would win big points. We found out from the competitors that this was a bit tricky because the blue cow is heavier than their other game pieces (colorful pom-poms that serve as seed, water and fertilizer, as well as yellow sponge "hay bales"). Turns out keeping blue cow on her feet was a challenge, but we were seriously impressed by these young programmers' skills.
We met several bright, enthusiastic competitors, including Daniel Swoboda, 19, and Christoph Käferle, 20, recent high school graduates from Austria, whose team had returned to defend their title as world champions (which they did!). And Avery Perez and Lexie Perez, 13-year-old twin sisters from Virginia, who got into robotics because of their brother, Luke, and now love it for themselves.
The Perez sisters and their team, "Dead Robot Society," mentor a newly formed team in their region (Greater D.C./Virginia), "The Bots Who Say Ni." Whereas the Austrian team has six members and Dead Robot Society has 24, The Bots Who Say Ni is comprised of two teenage girls: Annaleise Kealiher and Maya Keely.
It didn't take long to realize Annaleise is obsessed (in a good way) with robots. She and Maya had met through one of a variety of other robotics activities. Maya is a builder, and Annaleise does all the coding.
Coding is why Annaleise decided to participate in Botball. The Oklahoma-based program is unique in focusing on teaching participants to use real-world computer coding languages, most often the "C" language. (This is also why Botball was incorporated into Noble Academy's youth STEM education activities, which led to a relationship that also resulted in Noble Research Institute's sponsorship of this year's global robotics conference. Learn more about Noble Academy and Botball in the Fall 2016 Legacy.)
Back in January, when Annaleise began preparing for the Botball competition season, she built a practice field in her family's basement and dubbed it the "Bot Cave." Then, nearly every day for the next six months, she spent anywhere from two to 13 hours there.
Her time spent paid off. The "rookie" took second place in the Greater D.C./Virginia Regional Botball Tournament.
Annaleise Kealiher (right) and Maya Keely make up The Bots Who Say Ni team from the Greater D.C./Virginia region. Annaleise's interest in robotics extends to agriculture.
Robots in Agriculture?
I was standing next to Annaleise's mom, Aynsley Kealiher, as her daughter and Maya prepared for their match against a Palm Desert Charter Middle School team from the San Diego, California, area, during the international tournament.
When I introduced myself as working for the Noble Research Institute, Aynsely's face brightened as she recalled her daughter's interest in a presentation given the previous evening by Frank Hardin, Ph.D., Noble Academy's youth education manager.
Frank talked about how the Noble Research Institute delivers solutions to agricultural challenges, largely through scientific research both in laboratories and the field as well as through education and working directly with producers. He also talked about how robotics and other technologies could potentially help farmers and ranchers feed a growing population while improving land stewardship.
Aynsley said Annaleise is interested in agriculture, but she's also interested in aerospace. After Frank's presentation, though, Aynsely says Annaleise told her, "But we need to feed the world, so I guess that's more important."
Later, I asked Annaleise why she was interested in agriculture. She told me her grandfather farms, and she's always liked growing plants herself, too.
"Agriculture is so important," the 15-year-old robotics enthusiast told me. "It's how we get the food we eat and the clothes we wear. In the future, we're going to need agriculture even more with the population growth. We need to be able to feed our planet, and robotics can help us."
I asked her how robots could help agriculture, and her words almost blurred together; she was so excited. She listed several possibilities: sensors could measure water and fertilizer use, robots could help pollinate plants, UAVs could monitor large-scale fields and pastures. She's also interested in vertical farming, aquaponics and hydroponics.
Annaleise isn't just about talk or ideas, either. In addition to all of her robotics activities (which she admits takes up most of her time during competition season), she grows her own garden. This summer she plans to build a "FarmBot." It's the first open-source CNC farming machine, and the robot can sow seed, water plants and control weeds.
She might only be 15 now, but there's no doubt this intelligent young woman will go far in life. She's thinking and seeking out opportunities to learn more about the topics she's curious about. And she does it not because she has to but because she wants to.
These seem to be common qualities among the students Rob and I met at the Botball tournament. They're intense about what they do, but they also have fun. Botball says it's about building up the next generation of problem-solvers, and I see this in Annaleise and her fellow competitors.
Hopefully, some of them will offer their skills and persistence to agriculture someday.