one of only six in county

BY ROB WASSERMAN

Venice High School is one of just six schools in Los Angeles County that has a “botball” team.

Botball is a robotics game in which robots are assembled using standard Lego pieces, sensors — including infrared sensors, sonar sensors and light sensors — motors, gears and equipment that can be found on a home video camera.

The Venice High School botball team — which placed sixth in a 34-team botball tournament March 19th in San Diego — is a division of the school’s newly formed robotics team, an extracurricular school activity.

The botball robots — under competition guidelines — are student-built and computer-programmed to move about on a game board.

Botball is played on a four-by-eight-foot game board enclosed in PVC (polyvinyl chloride) tubing that prevents robots from falling off edges of the board, which is about the size of an air hockey table.

Robots score points by placing objects into designated places. These objects vary, but typically consist of plastic water bottles, small sports balls and similar objects.

The game board changes every year, as do rules on scoring and the game in general.

“The rules are constantly changing because botball is constantly evolving,” said Donovan Artz, a USC engineering student specializing in artificial intelligence.

Artz is the coach for the Venice botball team. He said that he got involved with students at the high school through Venice High science teacher Simon Huss, who initiated the formation of the Venice High robotics team and the botball team.

“It seemed like a great way to get kids involved in critical thinking,” said Artz.

At the beginning, 30 students were part of the Venice robotics team.

But when students learned about all the work that goes into the design and building of the robots, that number dwindled to six, Artz said.

The Venice botball team members are Graciela Cruz, Betty Liu, Bay Grabowski, Leiguang Ren, Jeanette Tam, and Wend Tam.

“In the end, the students who were serious about botball remained,” said Artz.

The Venice High robotics team members had six weeks after entry in the San Diego tournament to build their robots.

“It was fascinating” to witness the process in which the students designed and built the robots, said Artz.

He said that a lot of planning goes into the programming of the robots’ maneuvering.

“It takes a lot of time to program the robot to find the distance between itself and an object or space in front of it,” Artz said.

Once a botball game begins, the robots are not controlled by the students.

No remote controlling is used. The robots are completely programmed to move independently and react to the game as it unveils, according to the game description on the www.botball.org Web site.

Artz says that at the beginning of the game, the robots cannot exceed a standard size, but after the game begins the robots can expand.

The Venice High team designed a folding arm for one of its robots that increased the robot’s size to 75 percent greater than it was at the beginning of the game.

Artz says that for a team to compete in a game of botball is not inexpensive.

The equipment used to build the two robots that the Venice team used in the San Diego tournament cost more than $2,300.

No money was available through Venice High School, so students had to brainstorm as to how they could raise enough money to compete in the tournament.

Travel and other expenses brought the total to $3,000.

Students sold egg rolls and sodas to raise funds for the tournament.

Artz said that Huss personally put up a lot of his own money to cover a shortfall.

Contributions are needed to keep the Venice High robotics team afloat, says Artz.

Information, Donovan Artz, Dono@isi.edu

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