Robot competitions have become common in many middle and high schools.

The robots, however, don’t often look like flying pink pigs with fluffy trim or go by name like “Swine Flew.”

That was one of several funky robots that patrolled the floor of a middle school auditorium at Episcopal High, seeking errant pingpong balls to scoop up.

David Wang, one of the organizers of a three-week “Summer Games and Magic” creativity workshop at Episcopal, said his employer, the Cambridge, Mass.-based NuVu Studio, avoids the cookie-cutter kits that many other robot races use, opting instead for more open-ended, creative designs.

“We didn’t want everything to be about performance,” said Wang, whose NuVu title is “in-house rocket scientist.”

The summer workshop is part of a multiyear push by Episcopal High, one of the prestigious and expensive private schools in Baton Rouge, to promote more creative and critical thinking among its students.

NuVu has compressed and reworked the 11-week program it conducts at a school in Cambridge to three weeks. Each week of the workshop features a different central activity. Next week will involve creating games on the Wii game console. NuVu has yet to reveal what’s happening during the third week.

Jewel Reutner, Episcopal’s dean of curriculum and instruction, said the NuVu team has worked hard.

“The amount of preparation they put in each night for the next day is incredible,” Reutner said.

This week’s 31 participating students, ranging from sixth- to 12th-graders, likewise worked hard and without complaint, she said.

“They came early each day and left late,” Reutner said.

The workshop is not cheap — $800 tuition per week.

Reutner said she started hearing about NuVu last fall and she and other school administrators flew to Massachusetts earlier this year hoping to persuade the studio to add Episcopal as its second school.

“They actually came up and found us,” Wang said. “That type of dedication, we couldn’t ignore.”

By Friday afternoon, 11 separate robots were ready to compete. They had five minutes to collect as many pingpong balls or “energy spheres” as they could. White balls, the most plenteous, earned one point, while orange balls earned one and green balls, the rarest, earned five points each.

Teams “Domo” and “Mud Ball” were far and away best suited to the task, collecting the bulk of the points. Both employed front sweep arms.

“Domo” won, after it scooped up 222 points, equating to a lot of pingpong balls. The team originally had no name for its low-to-the-ground pingpong scooper, but ended up naming the thing after an anime character they had drawn onto the robot’s top surface.

Joe Leo, 13, appeared to be the driving force of team “Domo” and team members Aaron Posner and Erin Tsai deferred most questions about the robot to him.

“I was originally going to have two arms, but it didn’t work,” Leo said. “I decided one would be simpler.”

While Leo introduced his robot to the audience just before the robot competition began, he sheepishly noted how similar his design ended up being to “Mud Ball.”

Sean Stevens, NuVu’s “prototyping guru,” said creative people often draw ideas from other sources but you need to try to improve upon your sources of inspiration.

After “Domo” and “Mud Ball” were three teams made up of faculty members. One of the best of those at scooping pingpong balls was “King Pong,” created by English teachers Kristen Kirschner, Becky Milligan and Angie Edwards.

“We’re all right-brained personalities,” Edwards said. “This was quite a challenge for us.”

After honoring the best performing robots, audience member voted on which ones had the most “style.”

In this category, “Swine Flew” ended up tying with another creative robot called “Baby Crazy” that resembled a character out of Sesame Street.

Both teams unabashedly said they were trying to compensate creatively for the shortcomings of their robots.

The “Swine Flew” team redesigned their robot several times, including on competition day.

Here’s how team member Katherine Ann Andreeff, 12, explained how the “Swine Flew” name came about.

“She wants to be a veterinarian,” Andreeff said, pointing to her teammate Darby Huye, 13. “That probably influenced her decision to make our robot a pig.”

For her part, Andreeff said she’s thinking of becoming an actress, but is not ruling out rocket scientist, assuming she has the time.


NuVu Studies summer workshop blog: