This Non-Profit Is Teaching Kids How to Code With Tiny Sumo Wrestling Robots

When you hear the words ‘sumo wrestler,’ the first thing that comes to mind is the disciplined wrestlers from Japan. Innovation and tech education non-profit HACK Augusta is injecting that sense of competition into a robotics curriculum with their Sumo Robot League.

The League’s STEM robotics curriculum caters to middle and high school students to help them understand the basics behind building electrical circuits, design and 3D print adaptive components, and coding with C++.

With the help of small, affordable kits, the students can build sumo robots, an autonomous robot designed to find another robot and push it out of the ring, and learn programming. Each robot is close to four by four inches and weighs about a pound — a fun way to engage students that wouldn’t be otherwise exposed to STEM education.

CEO Eric Parker took his own daughter to a class at Augusta innovation hub to build robots together. Despite being more of an arts-focused kid, she had a blast, says Parker. He came up with the idea of forming a league.

“We started organizing completions for more people to do this,” says Parker. “Once we started doing that, we had schools in the Augusta area ask if we could teach in their school how to build a sumo robot. After doing that for a year, we decided that the only way to make it more sustainable was to design our own robotics kits and make our own curriculum, so that we could drive the price of it down and it would be in more places than one.”

While robotics kits can cost upwards of $15,000 per school, the League created their kits for $120 each. For less than $5,000, a teacher can have an entire class of kids building a robot, learning how to code, and becoming more interested in the mechanics behind the robot. Each kit includes all necessary parts to build a robot as well as files for kids to design and 3D-print their own custom robots.

“They’re programing right in the standard Arduino interface, which is a free open-source piece of software. And it recognizes our board just like any other Arduino board,” says Parker.

Parker and Grace Belangia bootstrapped the project with $100K and a $15,000 grant from email marketing platform MailChimp to help provide teacher training in Augusta.

Now, the League offers teacher training on-site or remotely, weekly virtual support, and resources for the classroom to reduce the barrier of entry. They provide access to a cloud platform to allow teachers to manage their lessons and schedule competitions with other teachers.

The non-profit sells classroom kits, textbooks, teacher training and support, swag, and even spare robot parts. The kits can also be used for more exercises aside from the League battles, including machine learning, mobile app development, and IoT.

The League has doubled its sales year over year, recently selling its 1000th robot. The robots are in over 17 states and four countries, with their biggest customer being the Duval County school system in Jacksonville, FL.

“There are a lot of programs and activities that use graphic interfaces for programming where the kids drag and drop blocks so they can learn basic logic,” says Parker. “We’re sort of a first gateway into learning line coding, which is what they’re going to need once they get into high school and college.”

Every fall and spring season, the League coordinates sumo robot matches with local schools and regional competitions with local communities leading to the championship.

Parker attributes the success of this STEM curriculum and non-profit to his current locale of Augusta and other smaller technology cities.

“Our initial marketing effort has always been, not just in Augusta, but going to the other second-tier cities to help them have a low-cost resource that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” says Parker. “It’s not until really the last year that we’re starting to gain traction in a market like Atlanta.”