Two small robots faced off, and with a signal from their human controllers, they crashed together in a classic sumo match.

The scene could have been out of a science fiction movie, but it took place in the West Feliciana Middle School gym on May 12. The robots were built by eighth-graders in Heather Howle’s science, technology, engineering and math classes.

Judging by the participation of the students, teachers and their families, the first “Sumobot Night” was a rousing success, the culmination of the first school year of Howle’s STEM elective classes.

The robots were built from LEGO Mindstorm EV3 robotic kits and were operated remotely through Bluetooth technology or were pre-programmed. They included a central brain that detects sound, color and touch plus two large motors and a smaller one that could operate a mechanical arm. The robots were programmed for everything from moving in a simple straight line to detecting obstacles with sensors and making turns.

“The students learned how to program with simple block coding in the beginning,” said Howle. “They could follow the kit’s instructions or build their own configurations. They learned how to add decision loops that were more sophisticated.”

The students faced several challenges including sumo wrestling, traffic cop, where the robots responded to red and green lights, and a simple maze challenge.

“It was neat watching the kids,” Howle said. “The challenges let them build whatever they wanted as long as it came from the kits. They learned the physics behind sumo wrestling, the effects of weight and a low center of gravity, thrust and taking off. They tried to add all of those elements, and they all had completely different designs.”

Funding for the 35 robotic kits was provided through a $13,000 grant from Entergy and additional support from the West Feliciana Parish School Board. The 100 STEM students were divided into groups of three, with each designing their own robot.

“We limited it to an in-school competition this time, but maybe in the future we’ll invite other schools to compete,” Howle said.

The team of Daniel Field, Emery Godke and Hayden Howle won the sumo competition, defeating the team of Dalton Leet and Dionté Tate. The match was tied after the first round, but the winners prevailed in sudden death.

Howle said the robotics unit is part of the STEM curriculum she designed last summer. Other units focused on the science behind things like roller coasters, flight and rocketry. The robots are reusable, and the day after the competition, they were disassembled and stored for next year’s STEM classes.

“Every child participated, and they all learned a lot,” said Howle. “It was a lot of fun for the students. It showed them elements of engineering and the computer science of programming.”