Robotics Tourney Engages Students in High Tech Problem Solving

Austin Strand’s role in the James Lee Community Center’s second-place finish at the Greater D.C. Regional Botball Robotics Tournament held no small significance for the high schooler.IMG_7129

Austin Strand’s role in the James Lee Community Center’s second-place finish at the Greater D.C. Regional Botball Robotics Tournament held no small significance for the high schooler.


Longfellow Middle School’s Anu Goel (left) and Ethan Votkyo celebrate their robot’s 14th place finish out of the 41 teams competing at the Greater D.C. Regional Robotics Tournament on April 18. (Photo: Peter Flint/News-Press)

“James Lee beat Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which came in third and fifth places,” explained Strand’s team manager, Ron Moses. “That was tough competition. Austin was turned away from Thomas Jefferson, and here he turned around to beat Jefferson in a major robotics tournament.”

Now, as the James Lee and other area teams prepare for the next stage of competition, the Global Tournament to be held in Leesburg, Va. this year July 1 – 5, the team managers and the clubhouses’ benefactor, the nonprofit Equal Footing Foundation, talked to the News-Press about the program’s benefits for students and the teams’ outlook for the July tournament.

The Botball program has allowed thousands of students like Strand to engage their high tech creative sides with clubhouses like the one at James Lee and other area community centers in Fairfax County, including Bailey’s Crossroads and Gum Springs.

Students from middle school through college, on school or clubhouse teams, designed robots from official kits provided by Botball to compete in the April 18 Greater D.C. tournament, the nation’s second-largest this year after Hawaii, out of a total of 41 teams competing.

The 41 teams totaling 6,000 students represented 22 states and six countries. The tournament took place at the Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus.

James Lee earned second place for its robot’s ability to negotiate various obstacles. The team from Longfellow Middle School of Falls Church came in 14th place.



Students from Longfellow Middle School worked with computer programming languages to create their autonomous robot. (Photo: Peter Flint/News-Press)

In addition to placing at the competition, the Fairfax teams garnered three more trophies in its sixth year at the regional level, including one for clean computer programming, outstanding middle-school level competition and for finishing well in the seeding round.

“The seeding round is particularly important,” said Lee Betton, the clubhouse project manager for Fairfax County Community and Recreation Services, who oversees the community centers. “It gives the judges a sense of the robots’ abilities, and since the robots perform independently of the kids’ control, it gives them a sense of the students’ work, too.”

This year, robots were compromised of the same basic components: a Roomba – a remote-controlled, disc-like vacuum cleaner that operates independently – LEGO and tech toy pieces, motors and sensors.

Each team assembled the pieces differently. “The James Lee kids programmed the robot with C+,” a computer programming language, said Moses. “They used the Roomba as a basis, and then attached a motherboard, and used the LEGO and pieces to attach arms, a scoop and appendages like the erector.”

So far, the program has attracted steady interest from the community centers’ students, who spend up to two to three days afterschool or on the weekends working on their Botball models.

“Gum Springs’ team meets two days a week, and then on Saturday we head over to James Lee to work with Alex Kennedy, who helped the kids build their computer board,” said Zewede Heylot, manager of the Gum Springs clubhouse. “For a student, that’s a lot of work in addition to school.”

“The kids love building the robot,” Moses said. Normally, the students have from January to April to construct their robots.

“Once they got their kits, the kids set to work to solve the problems and figure out the process to get to Leesburg,” he added.

Heywot noted that Botball students report “improved grades in math and science” at school.


Robots like the one above are designed by students using everyday appliances like this independently-operated vacuum cleaner. (Photo: Peter Flint/News-Press)

Since 1998, Equal Footing has created and funded the clubhouses throughout Fairfax County, with six now operational.

Equal Footing is “the charitable arm of the Northern Virginia Technology Council,” said Colleen Hahn, president and executive director of Equal Footing. The council consists of tech executives from the Northern Virginia area.

“We reviewed a lot of tech programs like Botball and explored what would work well,” Hahn said. Eventually Equal Footing settled on the Botball program, which geared up with NASA and the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) Robotics Institute to organize the national and regional competitions.

“It was the aspect of the real programming, real robotics lessons and giving kids actual problems to solve,” said Hahn, that convinced Equal Footing to incorporate Botball. The organization “moved into dead space” in the community centers, and converted the space to clubhouses for larger “Rocketry and Robotics” programs.

“The clubhouses work with the collective mind of kids and adults,” said Hahn. “Botball offers these kids a rare opportunity to work with science, technology, engineering and math to design these autonomous robots.”

“Kids also learn responsibility,” said Betton. “If the robot fails, the team suffers. Sometimes you’re set back. With all of the school work, students’ sincere interests prevail.”

The lesson was all too poignant for Bailey’s Crossroads’ first-year manager, Layan Salih, whose team could not compete last minute at the regional level.

“We didn’t have a mentor like the other clubhouses, and we relied on a parent to keep all of our supplies,” said Salih. When it came time for the competition, “the parent decided not to bring her student, as well as the robot and all of the parts.”

Even so, the teams “are fired up” for Leesburg, Betton said.

“All of the teams can participate at Leesburg. Obviously the winners are encouraged to attend. James Lee beat out teams from Thomas Jefferson and Northrup-sponsored teams, very tough competition,” he said.

It will be the first time any of the Falls Church area teams have attended the global-level tournament.

The teams’ progress and more information about the Botball tournaments can be found online at