Sponge Pineapples? Water Bottles? This is Science?

Post a Comment » Written on March 5th, 2008     
Filed under: News
DOHA, QATAR (March 5, 2008) – Working alongside his parents and other Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries in Congo began the preparation that led Charles Thorpe to bring the robotics competition, Botball, to the Middle East.

Thorpe, dean of the Carnegie-Mellon University campus in Doha, established Botball here in 2005, making it the first competition outside the United States. The popular program focuses on improving math and science skills by having teams of middle and high school students build robots.

Botball teams“Botball is cool!” declares Thorpe, who was director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie-Mellon before moving to Doha.
Teams of students build pairs of robots that must complete a series of tasks within a specified time frame.
Last year, teams had to build robots that collected pineapples (made out of sponge yellow and green leaves) in a farm. The robots then pitched the fruit in one container and the leaves in another.

After the objects were deposited, a volcano erupted 55 seconds later and the team’s second robot had to put out the fire by hurling water onto it. All of the action had to be completed in the designated time of 90 minutes.

Thorpe, the son of Covenant missionaries Roger and Eileen Thorpe, first developed his engineering acumen in Africa. “When the X-ray machine broke, my father, the surgeon, got out the manual and figured out how to fix it,” he says. “When my motorcycle fried a transmission, I had to take it apart and order new parts.

“I spent my vacations watching (missionary) Bob Thornbloom create water pumps out of old truck parts and wooden water wheels, and set up portable sawmills that could go right out into the jungle,” Thorpe recalls. “So I had the advantages of playing with technology and getting a real hands-on feel for how things work.”

Thorpe says he is giving the Middle East students the same opportunity to “play with the technology, get some practical senses of trying things, see what works, and improve on their first designs.”

The students build robots out of Legos. There is no specification of what the robot has to look like, Thorpe says, so the designs vary widely.

“Teams build small fast robots, or big slow ones, or ones with a long arm, or smart robots with lots of sensors,” Thorpe says. “It’s fun to watch the different approaches to solve the same problem. It’s also a good way for the students to learn teamwork, and presentation skills, and all of the things that are so important to working in the real world.”
The program continues to expand. Twenty-five teams from four countries are slated to participate this year.

Developing the program also has involved family teamwork. Thorpe brought his son, Leland, to Qatar for a year to get the Botball competition started in local schools. Leland brought valuable experience – his high school team had captured third prize in the U.S. national tournament.

The KISS Institute for Practical Robotics, a nonprofit educational program, started botball in Oklahoma. The acronym stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. Such thinking was needed for the first tournament in Doha.

“Nobody had run a Botball tournament outside the United States before, so there were some interesting glitches,” Thorpe recalls. “The robots were supposed to pick up empty eight-ounce water bottles. There were no eight-ounce bottles in Qatar, so the Botball people in Oklahoma City bought a case of water, drank it all, and sent us the empties! They really got excited about helping us out.”

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