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Iris! Iris! Iris! The story of the 2004 Texas State Botball Championships


It's lunchtime at the all-day Botball competition and, for one group of students, things were not going well. Their robot was malfunctioning. They'd lost every contest in the morning round robin. From other competitors, they received insults and scorn. With the afternoon elimination tournament looming, perhaps it would be easier to quit.

An improbable team from inner-city Houston with enters a state-wide robotics competition. Iris, their captan, is a quiet ninth-grader with a knack for debugging under pressure. Their teacher, a former biology major, learned to program alongside his students in their afterschool robotics club. Together, they embark on impossible quest and emerge transformed.


We begin this true story in media res. Under the bright competition lights, students are frantically troubleshooting their Lego creations and C programs. We focus in on the team from YES College Prep and the odds they face. After months of hardwork and countless hours spent afterschool and on weekends, their robot isn't working correctly on the grand stage. Their teacher (me), only able to provide encouragement from the stands, watches helplessly. (2 min)

Before we learn what happens next, we'll rewind the story a few years for context. As a rookie science teacher through Teach for America, I started a robotics club with a handful of Lego Mindstorms kits. The school, YES College Prep, serves primarily low income families and has a simple mission for its students: do whatever it takes to get into a four-year college or university. We'll introduce students of the 2004 YES Robotics team, including Iris. (2 min)

Botball is nonprofit organization run by members of the Computer Science program at University of Oklahoma. In partnership with the MIT Media Lab, they host an annual robotics compeition. The 2004 competition allowed teams to score points in ways including programming their robots to stack plastic cups or dunk a Nerf ball in a PVC hoop. Students write programs in C to control their robot's behavior. (3 min)

Debugging her program is where we find Iris on contest day during her lunch break, along with her teammates. With a key insight, they uncover the root cause of their malfunction. As the afternoon elimination bracket unfolds, they become the first and only team to successfully dunk the Nerf ball, and they march through the field victorious. In mentoring these incredible youngsters, I am myself inspired and learn how, with high expectations, people of all backgrounds are capable of the extraordinary. (3 min)

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