Botball in Doha

Meet the whiz kids behind the American School of Doha's robot army

Botball in Doha
Botball in Doha Image #2

When most people picture the folks who will one day build Skynet, they are not picturing high school students. But the American School of Doha is harboring students who one day may be responsible for constructing our robot overlords – and who today are content building robots that look suspiciously like Roombas.

The American School Botball team recently won the Middle East Final Botball competition, held at Carnegie Mellon University, and earned themselves a spot in the international competition this July in California.

But what exactly are they up to in what we only can assume is their evil lair of a robotics lab? DK Hipkins and Kim Tresohlavy, the two technology teachers behind the American School team, explain that the students have to build a robot to perform specific tasks on a special game board, each task counting for points – the tricky part is that the robots have to be completely autonomous. ‘The kids program it, start it, then hands off and hope it goes. Sometimes the robot doesn’t do what you want it to do,’ says Tresohlavy.

And the team is good – scarily good. They finished second out of 33 teams from around the region last year, and finished first this year, beating out Al Mawakeb School, Al Barsha from the UAE and Doha College to take the top spot. Not bad for a team, and a competition, that’s only been running for three years.

‘They’re here all the time: these kids are in this lab several times a week, even outside of robotics practice. There’s kids that are taking our classes, they are kids that are hanging out after school, coming in during their breaks, coming in on their free periods. We really develop a relationship with them. To me it’s really rewarding to see the growth that’s taking place,’ says Hipkins.

The students just see a super cool robot with an extendable tower, making it a breeze to pick up a stack of blocks and build a score-board-smashing tower. ‘It’s fun starting everything from scratch and really seeing it come together in the end, it’s rewarding,’ says Adrian Bergdal, Grade 12. ‘The tower was pretty cool. Building our robot that extended eight inches till it was full sized, that was great.’

Other tricks up their sleeves included an arm that would shoot out after the tower had been completed, snagging a stuffed toy called ‘botman’ and pulling him on top as a bit of crowning glory. (‘See, boys do play with dolls,’ jokes Hipkins. ‘They just call them action figures.’) They also built a second robot, whose first job was to release the ping pong balls, each worth one point, and then get out of the way of the bigger robot – racing across the board and interfering with the rival team.

‘People can get very competitive,’ says Sayed Serhan, Grade 12, although he’s quick to point out that wasn’t why they built the smaller robot – it originally had other tasks to perform, but on game day they discovered it just wasn’t working. They needed it out of the way, and the easiest place for it to go was the other team’s side of the board.

Coming up with solutions on the go, even if they are vaguely evil, is sort of the point. ‘It’s not just the technology, it’s the problem solving skills, it’s the reasoning and the thinking skills and the working their way systematically through something. This is real life,’ says Hipkins. ‘They are part of a team, first of all, which means they need to have collaboration skills, and they need to be able to function collectively as a unit. And be kind of thinking of the team’s interest and working with other people’s ideas. If they can develop those skills at this point, it’s going to carry them further.’

The team’s ability to function as a unit and surmount obstacles creatively is what Tresohlavy credits with helping them win – especially in Doha. ‘This is exceptionally creative, instead of an “I’m the king of all knowledge” mentality, and boy, did we have to be creative,’ says Tresohlavy.

On competition day, the team competes on regulation boards sent over from the US, but they practice on boards they build themselves – which can get a little interesting in Doha. Simple things like dowels and fluorescent light tubes just aren’t available in Qatar, says Tresohlavy, looking at the board they built literally out of transparencies, rulers and modelling clay. ‘I would say the clay dowels, that’s the most creative part. We took one of the overhead marker pens on the board, and with a jigsaw we sliced it down the centre, very badly, but we got it in half, then used that as a basic mould, and we came up with something that’s very close to the actual thing.’

Now, they are on their way to compete against the best of the best from around the world – if only they can get there. ‘There are 14 regions competing, and Carnegie Mellon sponsors five students and one coach for the team who wins to go to the competition,’ says Tresohlavy. ‘Well, we’ve got eight team members, and we want them all to go. So we need to start fundraising.’

Working as a team, she says, is one of the biggest parts of the entire competition, so leaving members behind is not an option. They’ve got several events lined up to help them fundraise, but they are more than happy to accept sponsorship or donations. ‘Watching the kids has been exceptionally rewarding for us,’ says Tresohlavy. ‘I have very close friendships with these kids, to the point that when I am done working here, these kids will be added to my Facebook. I want to keep up with them throughout their careers.’

Also, it’s probably prudent to stay on the good side of the folks programming those that one day will rule us with an iron (or fibreoptic) fist.

The international Botball competition takes place July 9-13 in California. Anyone interested in helping get the team to the event in California can contact the American School of Doha (4459 1500)

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