Rushing to the net in an open field, a Spelman College soccer player kicks the ball but misses the goal. The ball remains in play and, undeterred, the athlete races toward the ball as a Columbia University defender does the same. The defender is penalized for entering the penalty zone. Now, the Spelman athlete scores and the crowd goes wild.

This goal put Spelman up 1-0. Columbia would make a comeback to win the match in the final minutes, but the goal remains a breakthrough, and a significant accomplishment for the Spelman team. After all, this wasn't an ordinary soccer game. It was the U.S. RoboCup and the players were four-legged robots. The Spelman goal was the first, for the SpelBots RoboCup Soccer Team.

SpelBots was created to provide hands-on robotics education and research for women computer science students at Spelman, and to promote robotics and computer technology among minorities.

Andrew Williams, an assistant professor of Computer and Information Sciences at Spelman College and the team's mentor, was proud of the performance. "I've been really impressed with the students and their ability to learn," he says.


The SpelBot AIBO robots practice in preparation for the RoboCup competition.

Cute Metal Beasts

After completing his doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Kansas in 1999, Williams took a position in the Department of Engineering at the University of Iowa studying artificial intelligence (AI). Because Iowa's engineering department had a close relationship with the College of Medicine, he was able to receive grants in excess of $1 million dollars from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, as well as Microsoft, for his work in AI, specifically robotics and bioinformatics.

Williams started to view his work in science in a new way after reading the book, The Purpose Driven Life. "I realized that part of the reason I believe God created me was to be a role model to African-American students," he says. But being a role model for African-American scientists at a place like Iowa wasn't easy. During his 5 years at Iowa, Williams taught just three African-American students. So he decided to seek a position at a historically black college or university (HBCU).

Williams interviewed for a job at Spelman, and during his interview with Provost Sharon Washington, he realized he had found the right institution when Washington supported his desire to purchase Sony AIBO robots and use them to teach object-oriented programming to Spelman's students. Spelman offered Williams a position and he joined the faculty in 2004.

For Williams, using toy-like robots for teaching wasn't a new idea. He had worked with the Lego Mindstorm robots at Iowa and felt the AIBO would be the "next step" in programmable robots in education. "The Sony AIBO robot is probably the most advanced robot you can buy on the market today at a reasonable cost," Williams explains.

After purchasing AIBOs for his students, Williams decided to give them an opportunity to further their robotics education. He suggested they'd get more programming experience by entering their robots in the RoboCup soccer competition. The students were excited by the prospects of the competition, and SpelBots was born.

"This is probably the first time in our undergraduate careers that we're exposed to something this advanced," says SpelBot member, Aryen Moore-Alston. For Alston, being able to watch a robot respond to its programming is more rewarding than reading output on a monitor. The robot's actions and reactions provide a kind of concrete feedback that other educational methods lack.


The SpelBots team poses with their AIBO robots. Seated left: Shinese Nobel, Karina Lyles, Brandy Kinlaw, and Ebony O'Neal. Kneeling: Aryen Moore-Alston, Andrew Williams, and Ebony Smith.

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

AIBO robots use distributed intelligence--allowing each robot to be programmed as a goalie, attacker, or defender--and are guided by programs written and compiled on personal computers, then loaded onto memory sticks and plugged into the robots. Programmers have to ensure that the robots can detect the ball and kick it, while also locating playing boundaries, goals, and markers like the ones delineating the penalty zone.

During the school year, SpelBots members spent about 20 hours each week programming and training their four robots in preparation for the U.S. RoboCup. Thanks to the support of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Coco-Cola Foundation, team members work eight hour days during the summer to program and test the robots to prepare for the International RoboCup Four-Legged Competition in July 2005.

"Some of us would come in the morning. Some would come at night and stay until morning," says Ebony O'Neal. SpelBots is truly a team effort, and Williams gives his students credit for their hard work. "This is kind of humbling to admit," Williams confesses, "But collectively, the students know more about programming the robots than I do. One thing I try to stress for SpelBots is that it's student led, and I'm just an advisor."

Eye of the Tiger

Competition at the U.S. and International RoboCups involves more than the games. To qualify for the events, teams must have their technical reports accepted, Williams says. Competitors must also give a technical presentation at the end of the competition.

This year's U.S. RoboCup was held at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Nervous and intimidated about contending with the more experienced graduate students--as well as with final exams the week before the tournament--SpelBots pressed on. In the process, they became the first all-women team, and the first group representing an HBCU to compete in a RoboCup.

The players may be robots, but that doesn't mean their coaches don't develop emotional attachments. "It's pretty intense," Moore-Alston says. "It's almost like an adult watching their child play a game." During the U.S. Open, the team regularly stayed up until 4 am to improve the robots' program code between matches.

The SpelBots lost all three of their contests, 0-1 to Georgia Tech, 0-7 to Texas, and 1-2 to Columbia. But the scores obscure the SpelBots important successes: scoring a goal against Columbia in their final match, and a goalie's blocked a shot against Georgia Tech in the first match. The Georgia Tech and Texas teams each had at least three Ph.D. students and Texas had been working on the code for 3 years, according to Williams. One of the other two undergraduate institutions in the U.S. RoboCup, Lawrence Technical University, had to forfeit two of its three matches because the robots were unresponsive. The SpelBots had no such problems.

Happy Returns

Spelman President Tatum has agreed to pay for all six SpelBot team members and two faculty to attend the International RoboCup in Osaka, Japan. More than 200,000 people are expected to attend the event. Tatum has also bought the team four more robots (at $2000 each) to allow the team to run intra-team scrimmages.

One important benefit of SpelBots has been to raise the profile of Spelman computer science and the quality of education available at Spelman, says sophomore team member Katrina Lyles. Georgia Tech has invited SpelBots team members to give a demonstration for their Summer Program for Women and Minorities, which is for high school students. The Columbia University-City University of New York team invited SpelBots to help further their outreach efforts to women and minority students in New York City.

Williams and Carnegie Mellon University Professor Dave Touretzky recently co-authored a National Science Foundation "Broadening Participation in Computing" program proposal.

If funded, the schools will disseminate AIBO robotics to other HBCUs, including Hampton University, the University of the District of Columbia, and Florida A&M. In the fall of 2005, Spelman will offer a robotics course using the AIBO, which will be open to students at the other Atlanta University Center schools.

The larger community of Atlanta has taken notice as well. SpelBots has received invitations to speak at local middle schools to encourage women and minorities in the sciences. Two African American producers based in Atlanta have been filming the SpelBots to make a documentary about the team and their experiences at the RoboCup events. "This is almost a side project, but it's become really big," Williams reveals. "It's become really big for Spelman."

Clinton Parks is a staff writer at MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.