The night before the Olympic torch was lit in London, a different sort of international competition was beginning at the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Called the Robolympics, the event is a yearly contest put on by Penn’s Summer Academy in Applied Science and Technology, or SAAST, designed as a broad test of the robotics knowledge and skills its students have developed over the previous three weeks.
Since 2004, the summer program has welcomed high school students from around the world for three weeks of intensive study and campus life. Beyond robotics, classes include biotechnology, computer graphics, computer science, and nanotechnology. Some courses can be taken for college credit.
The program’s 32 robotics students split into teams of three to design, build, and program a set of robots to compete in the three Robolympics events. In the archery event, robots had to use an onboard camera to find an LED-ringed target, and fire a foam dart through the mark.
The Curvy Dash included a perception challenge, in which wheeled robots had to follow an undulating black line as quickly as possible without veering off-course. The final contest was the long jump, where the robots had to take a rolling start before attempting to spring over a small gap.
Not all were champions: Some of the robotic archers didn’t fire at all, others immediately swiveled away from the target and fired into the surprised crowd. But like the games in London, many parents were in the stands, beaming with pride, no matter the outcome. And given the crash course the students received, making it into competition was impressive in its own right.
“None of these kids had ever programmed before, but they went from learning their first programing language to making their own robots in three weeks,” says Ian McMahon, a robotics master’s student and a teaching assistant at SAAST.
“It makes me jealous,” adds McMahon. “I didn’t get to do that sort of stuff until I was a sophomore in college. They get to see how engineering can be fun very quickly.”
Originally published on August 9, 2012