Lights flash. Gears and motors whir to life as they detect the bright flares, starting up the robots for both sides. For two minutes, the autonomous bots roam the complex playing field, racking up points through collecting obstacles and placing blocks. Each year, the Hillsdale Robotics team competes in the International Botball Tournament as part of the Global Conference of Educational Robotics (GCER) hosted by the nonprofit KISS Institute.
Botball is an educational robotics program focusing on middle and high schoolers, teaching them core principles in science, technology, engineering, and math through building robots. Teams compete all around the world, building robots that run by themselves, without any remote control, on a preprogrammed two minute routine. The robots complete objectives such as collecting poms, moving obstacles like blocks or figurines, and traversing across ramps and pipes. Each year bring with it a new board, with new challenges and goals that have exciting real-world applications. The previous years have seen robots completing all sorts of mock tasks from improving farming to surviving in outer space. Hillsdale is one of the oldest teams in the botball competition, having competed nearly since the program’s inception. They begin every year with the Northern California Regional competition in April, then qualifying for the International Botball Tournament in July. This year, after months of hard work, long hours, and a couple all-nighters, the robotics team managed to retain their place in the top 5, placing fifth overall for the entire world in the International Botball Competition.
Being on the robotics team is a serious commitment. The season begins in September, right in the start of the year. Prospective members compete in the schoolwide Hillsdale Competition to gain experience in robotics, participating in a mock Botball competition with a specialized board and object designed by the members themselves (this year’s Hillsdale competition will feature themes from Avengers: Infinity War). Members learn valuable programming and mechanical engineering skills, coding in the C programming language and building arms, claws, and entire robots with motors, servos, and lego parts. They spend hours and hours afterschool building and refining bots for the regional, often testing out routines hundreds and hundreds of times until they’re perfect.
This year, the GCER took place in Indian Wells, California. Amid the scorching hot temperatures, the team was faced with fiery intense competition as well. Each day would be filled with nerve-wracking competition during the day, and intense refining and improvement during the night. Sophomore Marcus Cheng was enthralled by the experience, saying that his favorite part of GCER was “just watching all the robots run, seeing all the different creations other teams made.” He was amazed at “at how they’re so many different possible solutions for a task or problem.” The team was off to a rough start for the first part of the competition, the seeding round, in which a team takes up the entire board and tries to score as many points as possible within a time limit. Hillsdale placed 8th in seeding, meaning that they would have to pull out an incredible performance in order to maintain their place as one of the top teams. Luckily, the robots came through the double elimination round, in which two teams compete directly on the same board, each fighting to get more points than the other. The Hillsdale team was able to achieve a higher score than ever before, coming in first place in their double elimination section. The overall placing would be determined by seeding score, double elimination rank, and documentation score. Documentation consisted of a report detailing the process of developing the robots over the course of the season, recording the various obstacles and challenges a team faced, and how they were able to overcome them. Combined with a high documentation score of 0.994 out of 1 and successful double elimination run, the Hillsdale robotics team was able to pull through with fifth overall!
Robotics is an incredibly fun and educational experience not only for the practical knowledge it offers in computer science and engineering, but also due to its nurturing of “soft skills” such as teamwork and leadership. Planning out meetings and work sessions is an incredibly challenging task, and one that the Hillsdale team has worked hard to refine through careful attention to specialized teams for each bot, sprint work sessions, and group evaluations of robots after regular demo sessions every couple weeks. The Botball competition, in particular, in unique in that it features lots of easy-to-use parts such as Legos that are familiar to newcomers but require more creativity to use in practical robotics application, forcing members to think outside of the box and develop stronger design and innovation mindsets in order to create successful robots. Project-based learning is more hands-on and creative that what can be learned in the classroom, and its teachings prepare students well for future careers and projects in STEM areas. Best of luck to the newcomers looking the join the team this year!