Google assembles high school teams for a battle of the bots

PRYOR — The two robotic combatants faced each other from across the dohyo, or sumo wrestling ring.


One, created by students at William Bradford Christian School of Pryor, resembled a miniature bulldozer, complete with front scoop. The other, built by students at Adair Public Schools, sported rectangular strips of armor on its side and front — as well as two googly eyes on top.

With a shout of go, the two robots drove toward each other. The mini-dozer shoved its opponent sideways and locked into a side panel. Slowly but surely, the dozer pushed the two robots around in a circle, with the gathered crowd’s excitement rising as the googly-eyed robot edged closer to the edge of the ring.

Finally, the robot from Adair was pushed out, and the onlookers burst into cheers. The first round of the Mayes County Robot Games’ sumo competition went to William Bradford Christian.

The event, sponsored by Google and MidAmerica Industrial Park, assembled dozens of junior high and high school students from across Mayes County, as well as the robots they constructed and programmed over the last three months, to MidAmerica’s Expo Center Friday.

There, the robots competed in a variety of competitions, including following a drawn line on the floor, pushing cardboard tubes to specific locations, creating art with a pen and sumo wrestling.

Mike Wooten, operations manager for the Google data center at MidAmerica, said the competition wasn’t just an opportunity to have fun with robots — though he and participants alike said they had a blast — it was an opportunity to show students what can be done with everything they’ve learned in the classroom.

“It’s about linking what the students are studying with the jobs at the data center, and how they connect to what they could be doing in the future,” he said.

The event was part of the park’s “MidAmerica Delivers” program, which works to introduce high school students to potential career options at the park.

Tonya Backward, who works in workforce development at MidAmerica, said the goal is to help retain Mayes County students as they graduate and enter the workforce, and the event has helped show them future possibilities.

“You just see the kids light up when they have a chance to talk to a Google employee,” she said.

Those options include Google’s $600 million data center, which helps power all kinds of Google services, including email, search, cloud storage, mapping, YouTube and much more. The first 130,000-square-foot building opened in 2011, with plans for a second building announced at the state Capitol in 2012.

Wooten said the company wasn’t yet ready to reveal the status of the $100 million expansion, though since 2011 the number of employees has expanded from 100 to over 250.

For the competition, Google delivered robotics kits to high schools that included motors, batteries, wheels, sensors, servos and a control system — but only limited instructions on how to build and program.

Emma Gates, a 16-year-old junior at Salina High School, said the build was a challenge at first.

“It was pretty rough at first, but once we got it figured out, it was a lot of fun,” she said.

Volunteers at Google mentored the various teams with guidance and assistance. But Dave Barr, hardware operations manager at Google Pryor and the mentor for Salina, said the students figured out most of it on their own.

“When I showed up, they already had the robot assembled and were working on code,” he said. “I was just there to help with a few technical issues.”

Google assembled its own robot for the competition, but in at least a few cases, it was outclassed by the students’ bots.

“It was hilarious to see our robot lose the line in the line follower competition, since it lost the line and went back and forth a few times until time ran out,” Barr said.

Wooten said the competition was a continuation of their strong involvement in the community, as the company has donated $1.1 million to area schools and nonprofits since 2011, and 17 volunteers regularly mentor local students. Google also helped establish a 13-block free Wi-Fi zone in downtown Pryor.

By the end of the event, Chouteau had dominated all parts of the competition with a gold and silver robot that looked like a cross between a crab and a locomotive.

Though Salina’s team didn’t win, Gates said she wants to keep building robots.

“I’d love to do something like this for a job,” she said.