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Michael Bastoni

Plymouth North High School
Plymouth, Massachusetts
BattleBots IQ

Michael Bastoni is a Shop Teacher at Plymouth North High School in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  He considers himself a Robot Revolutionary and his mission is to be an agent of change in the educational process.  He believes in making "school" more real and engaging, thereby empowering students of all ages "to be actively and passionately involved in the process of creating knowledge and understanding themselves for themselves and for others."  Read his initial interview.  Here, Michael answers questions related to BattleBots IQ and robotics in the classroom.

What is BattleBots IQ?  How does it differ from the BattleBots the television show?

BattleBots IQ is BattleBots for high school kids.  BBIQ is about getting out of the single mode "Subject" approach to learning, and into full experiential immersion.  BBIQ is where kids develop technical literacy by talking about technology, by designing with technology, by fabricating technology and finally by competing with the technology they created: the Robots.

BBIQ is different from the TV show in subtle but important ways.  It is focused on education, not (only) entertainment.  BBIQ has strict safety regulations specifically aimed at ensuring "Best" engineering practice and strict adherence to component ratings and specifications.  I suppose BBIQ differs from the parent show, BattleBots, in much the same way that professional baseball differs from high school varsity baseball.

What is the educational value of BattleBots IQ?

BBIQ is an avenue to empowerment, and a lesson in humility.  It is a way out of the subject and into the experience of learning and doing ... and the learning belongs to the students who do it.  It is an avenue for the passionate creation of knowledge and experience.  BattlerBots IQ is about kids building robots.  BattleBots IQ is decidedly about education and learning.

The robots are 3-dimensional physical metaphors (Like the school bus was for me and my friends) for things far more important to a child's success.  BBIQ is about learning to make decisions, to arrive at logical and rational conclusions based on empirical studies and research.  BBIQ is about using sophisticated technologies to solve complex problems.  BBIQ is about research, it's about teamwork, integrity, managing time and resources.  In short it's about the qualities needed for success.  And you know what?  It's a heck of a lot of fun!  It's engaging and it comes in big rich learning chunks, not just 50-minute periods punctuated by unnerving bells and chaos in the hallways.

How did you get involved in robotics in the classroom?

I am a shop teacher.  I believe the current reference is technology teacher.  We (Technology teachers) develop the most fundamental of all human passions: to create tools and technology.  To design and build and to re-arrange the world to our needs using our minds, hands and the information we gather from our senses, and from those tools we build to extend our senses.  One thing we understand is that the skills, knowledge, technology and attitudes required to design and build stuff is highly transferable to most aspects of a person's life.  And the ability, and opportunity to re-arrange the "Stuff" in our world is both empowering and humbling.

Do you remember Stanley Kubrick's scene from 2001 Space Odyssey, where the ape discovers the power of tools, and then throws the bone (lever) into the air and it dissolves into a star ship approaching the outer planets?  Five million years of evolution in 3 dramatic minutes of film.  Wow!  That's powerful communication!

I got involved with robots for the same reason I got involved in racing electric cars with my students, or playing "Rocket Golf", or building trebuchets, or constructing stone age tools, or designing and building post and beam barns, or the dozens of other rich engaging activities that I have been fortunate to do with my students.  I got into it because it's good for my students.  It is a way for my students to make wonderfully intricate and enriching connections, connections they must make, between the otherwise disconnected subjects they study and the learning they get through life experiences and the people they meet.  Robots are one of many ways to make education personal and real.

But why robots?

Let's face it, kids can't afford to build hot rod cars, or motorcycles anymore, even though they'd like to.  Robots combine a lot of cool technology that is at once affordable and accessible to many teachers and students and if we are successful in making and maintaining the sport of competitive robotics, we will have done for academic related learning, what James Naismith and Abner Doubleday did for athletics.

Are your programs primarily after school or vacation classes or are they part of the school curriculum?

All of the above and in equal measure.

We do this to ensure that kids who play sports, music or participate in clubs and social organizations, work after school, or have family issues can still participate in BattleBots IQ.

BattleBots IQ has an online curriculum that supports the learning necessary to build competitive BattleBots. The curriculum contains lessons in Algebra, Geometry, Physical Science, Pneumatics, Motors, Batteries, Materials, Design, and much more information that is helpful to any sport roboticist.  These programs have to be flexible in order to meet the students needs.  Actually ALL programs should be so flexible.  Maybe one day they will be.

Where do you get funding for your programs and how do you set them up?

We have a generous corporate sponsor, Pilgrim Nuclear Station, an Entergy Corp generation plant.  Entergy provides the funds for two high schools in our town to procure the parts and supplies necessary to build BattleBots.  They help us when we ask, but the Entergy Staff is in the business of making electricity, and we are in the business of education.  Entergy is pleased to support educational programming that develops technical skills.  Technology-based companies like Entergy need and want to develop the technical acumen of the children in the communities they impact.  We are exceedingly grateful for this support, and to date we have had dozens of students pursue engineering and technical careers as a result of their participation in programs that Entergy sponsors.

We also maintain a robot boosters club.  This boosters club is a loosely related group of parents and business partners that share our passion for designing and building robots.  They have been instrumental in providing the funding we need to attend the events.

BattleBots IQ programs cost about $3000.00-5000.00 a year to maintain (less over longer periods of time).  The robots are reusable, though most teams perform significant redesigns between events.  The major cost is always travel, but we have developed strategies to make that sustainable.

Where do you get the kits or materials to build your robots?

The developers of BBIQ reasoned that sourcing parts and materials are a real world exercise.  One that should not be constrained by the limitation of pre-determined kits.  We obtain our parts in the competitive marketplace, just like real companies and organizations do.

What has happened is that industry has responded to the "New" market for robotic hardware.  There are now well engineered and affordable, parts and supplies for competitive robotics.  Parts and supplies adapted from existing technologies.  The electric motor industries, the paintball manufacturers, the pneumatics companies and a host of others have developed safe, affordable robot components.

And there is always the creative avenue for those designers who want to search harder for a competitive advantage.  It's always the creative mind that makes the difference in BattleBots, not necessarily the deepest pockets.

What is the purpose of the robots your students build?

The overriding purpose is to be a vehicle for creative expression.  Whether a group of kids designs a wedge (and there are about 10,000 variations of the concept "Wedge") or a bipedal walking robot, it is always the functional, creative expression of an idea born in the mind of a child.  This is at the heart of the "Purpose" our BattleBots serve.  They are the expression of an idea.

BattleBots are like any of the more than 300 "Mechanized" or robot competitions that occur yearly in this country.  Winning is certainly the aim, but it is not the objective.  The objective is to immerse teachers and students in the process of learning and doing.  The competition is a suffix to the more important act of invention and creation that the BattleBot or robot represents.

The purpose of the robots we build is to provide us with the opportunity to learn and to do what we are passionate about, designing and problem solving, gaining real experience with engineering machines and interacting at a deep and passionate level with other people.

How does robotics help young people toward future careers?

Students who can design and build competitive robots, can and often do design and build wondrous lives for themselves and those around them.  They become empowered and humble, two important ingredients for leadership and for success in a career and in a home.

How does robotics enhance the learning experience and academics overall?

Building robots builds technical literacy.  Talking about science and technology, is the best way to learn about science and technology.  Robots are comprised of simple machines, of sub systems and assemblies, which in turn are comprised of components (this reduction could continue until we are discussing quarks and gluons).  These components, sub assemblies and systems interact in complex ways.  Understanding these interactions requires hard thinking, reasoning and the application of basic science and math principles and concepts.

Are very many girls involved in robotics?

Girls are wonderful capable and very special people. We have had many capable young women on our different engineering teams through the years.  One young lady is currently attending one of our nation's oldest engineering colleges, and doing rather well I might add.

Girls need to be invited to join engineering teams.  It's not that they don't want to ... it's that they have grown up in a culture of technological exclusion.  Boys run roughshod over the girls' sensibilities, often without realizing it.  This prevents girls from obtaining the empowerment due them for their willingness to make the engineering effort.  On the other hand, the boys miss out on the valuable experience of humility.

Do you think that there should be "girls only" robotic teams?

I think it is entirely appropriate for girls to have all female robotics teams.  I believe it is often necessary, at least for the present.  At least until a cadre of experienced and empowered women reach the critical mass needed to sustain the (obvious) fact that women are equally capable and competent technologists.

I confess to learning this from a recent Mechanical Engineering graduate from the University of Tulsa and a member of the nation's first collegiate, all-girls BattleBots Team.  They will soon be featured in the design lesson of the BBIQ website curriculum.

Yeah, you go girls...

"If they'd only let me play" ... well, we do and we are all better for it.

What can teachers do to start a robotics program in their classrooms or in after school or community programs?

If I were a teacher who wanted to engage my students in an authentic engineering and design activity that both encouraged and required the development of real world design and engineering skills, I'd choose Competitive Robotics.

The first thing I would do is ask my students and parents to meet one evening to discuss which of the many programs available they would like to participate in.

Then I would ask my students to research these programs in order to find which one best suited our school's/class's, needs and resources.

What type of programs should they look for?

I would want programs that offered things like:

A National Venue with Clearly Articulated Rules and Guidelines
A Manageable Time Frame
Curriculum and Education Support to Ensure Success
Electronics and Programming Skills
Communication Skills
Opportunities for Hands on Student Involvement
Accessibility to Entry Level Student Skills
Design Activities
Engineering Drawing Skills

What should they do next?

I'd then begin reading and talking to machinists, welders and welding supply companies, material suppliers, component vendors, mechanical and electrical experts and anyone with machine tool skills in order to learn about designing and building machines.

I would ask my students to do the same.  I would take my students to courses offered by vendors of products like pneumatic systems, paintball equipment maintenance, welding equipment and machine tool equipment.

I would partner with the local technology teacher.  Robots are an about invention, and invention begins in the mind's eye, but ends with a functioning design.  This process requires tool and material process skills.  Skills that we must develop and maintain in order to ensure the empowerment of future adults.

Do you have any advice or thoughts that you would like to share with students around the world?

I want students everywhere to know that the power to change their lives, to change the world they live in, lies within them.  Most great political, social, and scientific change came through the efforts of passionate and empowered young people.

Other Interviews: 5 August 2002
Photos | Q&A

- 6 August 2002


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Last Updated:
8 January 2015

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