ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It all started back in 2001 when two dozen students and three teachers got together in a middle school gymnasium in Rio Rancho. Today, a dozen years later, RoboRAVE has become a global phenomenon with competitions held on four continents.
In addition to this year’s big RoboRAVE International competition at the Albuquerque Convention Center – the event drew some 1,600 participants – RoboRAVE competitions have sprung up in Spain, Mexico, Colombia, China and the Czech Republic.
Recently, a trio of New Mexicans, including Central New Mexico Community College instructor Fabian Lopez, traveled all the way to
Alburquerque, Spain, to promote RoboRAVE . They came back inspired by the enthusiasm for the program they found in the little Iberian town, population 5,600.
Los niños de España were so enthusiastic that many decided to forgo a snack break just so they could talk more with the robotics teachers from America.
“It’s amazing you can get so many kids so engaged in technology, math and science without them even realizing it,” Lopez says.
RoboRAVE – “RAVE” is short for “Robots Are Very Educational” – is largely a pursuit of school kids and the competition recognizes three age levels: Middle School, High School and Big Kids. Scouting teams and home-schooled kids can also participate, Lopez says. The overseas events are structured more or less along the same lines and the visit to Alburquerque, Spain, took the three New Mexicans to the Instituto Educación Secundaria Castillo de Luna, a high school.
RoboRAVE is an annual competition in which teams of two, three or four members build their own autonomous – no remote controls – robots, which compete against each other in four categories:
n Robots carrying ping pong balls follow a line using built-in sensors, detect the presence of a tower, deposit the balls into it, then return to the starting point – all in three minutes. If there’s enough time left over, they can deliver more balls and earn more points.
- Robots wield wooden sticks as they follow a track, again using built-in sensors to find their way. When they encounter a rival robot, they engage in a jousting contest. The last one standing is the winner.
- Robotomy. Last year, a team designed a robot to pull people out of collapsed buildings. Another developed a robotic pooper scooper.
- Fire-extinguishing competition in which the robots make their way to lighted candles at various places along a prescribed route. The task is to snuff out all four candles in three minutes using built-in blowers. The extinguishers are not allowed to touch the candles.
Lopez, Russ Fisher-Ives – president of the nonprofit organization that runs RoboRAVE and a co-founder of the event – and Pam Feather, a Hewlett-Packard engineer, made the trek to Spain to drum up support for RoboRAVE España.
Olga Vasquez is another robotics teacher who last fall led 10 local students to Pardubici in the Czech Republic. There, they trained 600 Czech children in RoboRAVE. Now she’s back at East Mountain High School teaching – you guessed it – robotics.
Her classes – to say the least – are popular. One freshman, John Spanjers, says emphatically: “This is the best class of the day. We make all kinds of cool stuff in this class.”
A junior, Owen Parkins, agrees: “The only problem with this class is that it’s at the end of the day. You have to wait.”
Wesley Meager, a sophomore, adds: “I wish it was all day long.”
Obviously, the students enjoy learning about the principles of robotics and putting that knowledge to use. Some of them have also designed and constructed Rube Goldberg machines, which Wikipedia describes as a “machine, contraption, invention, device, or apparatus (that) is a deliberately over-engineered or overdone machine that performs a very simple task in a very complex fashion, usually including a chain reaction.”
At East Mountain High, one of the contraptions includes several decapitated Barbie dolls. In fact, a goal of one Rube Goldberg is to decapitate a doll. Robots are also involved. Another robot dubbed “Reptar” – others call it a snake because of the way it slithers across the floor – snaps viciously but humorously at any hand that passes in front of its menacing snout.
Vasquez, who also teaches rocketry and microsystems, likes the competitiveness of RoboRAVE. “Kids want that,” she says. “It’s like sports; they want to win. Generally, we don’t do that in science and we bore them to death. No wonder we’re losing out.”
Eight Chinese students and two teachers paid a visit to New Mexico for four days around Christmas. They attended a robotics workshop at Bernalillo High School and spent their first Christmas ever with the Fisher-Ives family.
Since 2002, a nonprofit organization called Inquiry Facilitators, has provided nearly 200 robotics workshops for students and teachers on design and programming. The workshops have been conducted throughout New Mexico.
This coming year, RoboRAVE International is expected to draw teams from at least two Mexican cities, Colombia, China, the Czech Republic, Paris and two Spanish cities – to say nothing of teams from around New Mexico and the United States.
Lopez, Fisher-Ives and Chris Brady, a Rio Rancho technology teacher, founded RoboRAVE in 2001. They had helped a Rio Rancho robotics team in another competition and thought the kits, at about $6,000 each, were too expensive. They wanted to hold an affordable competition so anyone could compete.
That first year, RoboRAVE was a one-day event in the Eagle Ridge Middle School gym in Rio Rancho. In May, the 2014 competition will span three days at the Albuquerque Convention Center.