To simply say the robotics team at Plainview High School won the top overall spot at the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics Botball Tournament this year would be an understatement. The 14-member team traveled to Oklahoma City last weekend and competed in a series of events that tested their robots’ abilities to navigate a course and perform several tasks.
Robots were given points based on completed tasks, with difficult maneuvers earning more points over three rounds. Even though the team did not make it through the double-elimination rounds, their 1,028 seed point average was nearly three times higher than the second place team’s 352.5 seed point average.
The massive gap between first and second place wasn’t even what gave coach Maverick McClendon the most pride in his team. The award for outstanding outreach was responsible for that.
“They won the award for being the most helpful team at the competition. I mean they were there encouraging other kids on different things to do, ways to score points, doing all of these things that represented them well,” he said. “Hearing they got the most helpful team award was pretty incredible.”
The KISS Institute for Practical Robotics is a Norman-based nonprofit that provides robotics instruction and programs for students. The group started their Botball tournaments in 2012 and now invites teams from around the world to compete.
The robotics program at Plainview High School started as an after school club about three years ago. McClendon said he was tapped as a first-year teacher to get the program off the ground. The club has evolved and now robotics is a class offered to students while the team builds and competes with robots and drones.
“When we were doing this as an after school program, I had to get in there and learn with the kids at first,” McClendon said. A background in math and computer science classes in college helped get him up to speed and he said he has only learned more as the years have gone by.
Students use the small Raspberry Pi project computer—about the size of a deck of playing cards—with sensors and motors as the brain of their robots. Freshman Jonathan Harris said his team was notified on January 7 about what the course would be for the spring tournament. From there, the team started working on designs and building robots with Lego pieces and even an autonomous vacuum cleaner.
“I think by far the most interesting thing I’ve learned is to use these computers,” Harris said.
Contrary to popular belief, the robots designed and built by these students are not remote controlled. Students must use programming languages like C or Python to essentially teach their creations how to think for themselves.
McClendon said some people have wrongly assumed that students are in the group to play with remote controlled cars and planes. “Sometimes they’ll see them flying these drones and think they’re using remote controls. No. It’s all code. It’s completely autonomous,” he said.
The Plainview High School robotics team is broken up into three groups. One group is responsible for engineering and building the robots and a second is responsible for programming the computer that controls each robot. A documentation team records overall progress of the design and build for a presentation given to judges at a competition.
“Building the robots is not really my forte, but coding has been really fun,” said freshman Nathan Povendo. “It’s been a neat experience. I’ve learned a lot about programming robots and building and just, in general, how to make these robots do tasks.”
Senior Colton Peery has been a member of the robotics team for three years and now helps younger teammates with coding and engineering. The future engineer said he was nervous doing presentations at his first competitions but is now one of the team leaders.
“When we go outside and we’re actually doing competitions, I kind of have to mother hen the group,” Peery said. “They’re worried about what’s going on on the board, I’m worried about the logistics of making sure they get to the board and make sure it runs when they get there.”
Freshman Caleb Finley joined a robotics team while a sixth grade student in Tulsa. Even though he came from a larger school, he believes local interest in robotics will help grow the team in the future. “It’s definitely a much smaller school but you’re able to connect with the teammates more,” he said.
Based on participation in similar clubs in younger classes, the Plainview High School robotics team is likely to grow. McClendon said the program started with only four kids, but now the team has 14 members. “We still have elementary junior Botball teams and middle school teams,” he said.
Whether a student follows a career path in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics, McClendon believes the lessons in teamwork and perseverance are more important than whether a student knows how to build or program a robot.
“The problem solving skills alone that they learn...is stuff they can use in their everyday life,” he said. “They’re doing things that they’re going to use in real life, and I feel that’s most important.”