In the 21st century, writers have often told us, there would be robots, and they were right. There are robots among us.
Although works of science fiction may have prepared us for an onslaught of artificial intelligences and androids bent on conquest, or at least rebellion, so far what we have are robots of a less troublesome variety. And some of those robots do not hail from the laboratories of wild-eyed mad scientist-types, but the classrooms and workshops of local schools.
Take Birmingham’s G.W. Carver High, for instance, where on a recent afternoon, a dedicated team of teenage scientists were hard at work trying to teach their robot how to climb a rope. They called themselves the Carver Rambots, combining the name of their school mascot (a ram) with what they were building.
They were on a mission to construct a robot that would compete for cybernetic glory against the mechanized progeny of students from all over the area in what is called the Blazer BEST, an annual contest sponsored by BEST Robotics, a nonprofit volunteer organization created to engage teen interest in fields of science, math, and technology.
The competition, for middle and high school robot-builders, was held October 6 at Bartow Arena on the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Student teams from 14 different schools across Birmingham gathered in the stands of the arena, along with faculty sponsors, schoolmates, family members, and, of course, robots.
The competition, won by the team from Spain Park High, was the culmination of six weeks of hard work which began when event sponsors issued each team a kit of robot-building supplies. In the time that followed, the student teams had to use the given supplies to build a robot capable of completing a specific task: securely transfer small objects up and down a ten-foot pole.
Since all of the teams received the same construction supplies, the winning robot was the one that demonstrated optimal performance under these uniform conditions. However, student teams were judged not just according to the performance of their robots, but also for their presentations.
Team presentations were judged on four general criteria: an official team notebook documenting project planning, a themed exhibit to explain the purpose of the robot, a marketing strategy for promoting the robot, and team spirit. At any point in the competition, a judge could ask any member of a team to speak on any facet of the project. All team members had to be well-versed on all fields of the project. If a team divided itself to multi-task during the six weeks of preparation, it would have had to meet together before Saturday in order to perform adequately. That made the Blazer BEST Robotics Competition an exercise in teamwork.
At Carver, the robot was being conceived between two classrooms by 44 students divided into groups based on the different tasks of the project. Periodically, the groups would come together to update the whole team on their progress.
Faculty co-sponsor Dr. Marjorie Hyatt said this pattern of interactivity was a reflection of the Rambots’ key principle. “No man is an island. Not a single person has done anything by him or herself,” she said.
According to junior Keyana M. (the school prohibited the use of last names), the Rambot group identity was formed by these long hours of interactivity. “We’re all now one big happy family,” said Keyana.
Other members of the Rambots discovered that the Blazer BEST competition could also serve as an opportunity to hone their personal skill sets while helping the whole of the team. For example, Gregory T., a sophomore team member, chose to work on the website for the marketing portion of the competition to improve upon his skills with website development. “I knew the website format because I had a website before. Basically, I started my own t-shirt business. It failed. Miserably,” explained Gregory. For him, the Rambots offered a shot at marketing redemption.
Although each member of the Rambots might have joined the team with some personal goal in mind, the experience of working together seems to have bound them in singular sentiment. “Whether we win or lose, we’re all still winners because we did the work,” said Lisa M., a junior.
And, in fact, the Carver Rambots did win something: the Blood, Sweat, and Duct Tape Award for determination at Saturday’s competition.