ISI Grad Student Counsels Venice High Botballers

April 14, 2005

The Venice High School Botball team is a player, thanks in part to an ISI graduate student.

Donovan Artz, a Ph.D. candidate specializing in AI, volunteered as a coach/consultant after hearing a presentation by Colleen Van Lent (wife of ICT gamemaker Mike Van Lent) at ISI, which touched on the opportunity.

Van Lent is an assistant professor in the CS department at Cal State Long Beach, who works with the organized botball effort. Her example led Artz to connect with the high school nearest ISI's Marina del Rey location. There he found enthusiasm, desire - and a need for skills he could provide.

Some 35 schools and organizations in Southern California not have Botball teams, but the majority are in San Diego; Venice is one of only six teams in Los Angeles county.

Botball uses robots assembled from standard lego pieces. "The arms and drives trains and complex components are all designed and built by the kids from very basic building blocks - they really do build these things from scratch." Artz said.

Typically, the bots are small wheeled carriages with long manipulator arms and simple CPUs programmed in C. The game is played on a 4'X8' game board where robots score points by placing objects into scoring positions.

"The game board changes each year as does the scoring procedure. The game rules and instructions for the game arena are revealed at the teachers' workshop. The robot must turn itself on and off, perform its programmed task, and utilize no assistance from humans or a remote control," dictate the rules of Botball.

Artz arrived at Venice before Christmas, met Venice High teacher Simon Huss, and found 30 students interested. It was not easy. "We had trouble getting resources and space, even just finding a place where we could meet. And for me explaining to the kids how to use stuff from my specialty to help make their bots better - I have a lot to learn from Simon."

"One of the big roadblocks the kids faced was to engineer a robot that would fit in the starting space and then expand to move forward and knock down a ball. The kids came up with a very impressive pulley system for raising and lowering a large arm, and it was a really positive experience for them to make this idea work. It took many trials and errors before success.

"These kids showed lots of interest and dedication, staying until 11pm some nights as the regional competition closed in - some backing out of other obligations to make robots a priority.

The 30 boiled down over time to a small hard core who on March 19th journeyed to San Diego to participate in a tournament with 34 other teams.

In their first outing, Artz's Botboliers (Venice High School's athletic teams are the "Gondoliers) turned in a tie for sixth and seventh, and can't wait for next year. "Half the team will graduate," said Artz, "but we have lots of recruits."

The path was not easy. Money was a major factor; much of the funds came out of the pocket of the teacher, Huss, a Ph.D. in phyiscs who left industry because he finds teaching more rewarding.

Buying robots and and equipment cost more the $2300, none of which was available from the school. Travel to San Diego and other extras brought the total to $3000, which the students raised by selling egg rolls and sodas, and setting up a for-pay online Venice high meeting service.

Artz, a graduate of Drexel University, is in his second year at ISI, working with graduate advisor Yolanda Gil. Venice botball still needs contributions - contact Donovan

Venice Botbaliers (from left) Graciela Cruz, Betty Liu, Bay Grabowski, Leiguang Ren, Jeanette Tam, Wendy Tam