Bright Spots in Home Schooling

April 28, 2005  

First and third in the world: Homeschool robotics team wins big

Growing up, Angela Cannaliato watched her father compete in the annual Trinity College Fire Fighting Home Robot Contest in Hartford, Connecticut. Three years ago, when Angela announced that she wanted to compete, too, her mother, Ann Cannaliato, began a robotics class for homeschooled students in the basement of their Eldersburg, Maryland, home. Soon, interested students were bringing their laptops and learning the intricacies of programming at the Cannaliatos' kitchen table, while others, armed with soldering irons, were wiring circuits and building robots in the basement. From this humble beginning, nine homeschooled students, ranging in age from 14 to 17, achieved a stunning victory at the 12th Annual Trinity College Fire Fighting Home Robot Contest on April 9–10, 2005.

L to R, back row—Pwnage team: Hardware lead Gordon Webb (holding Pwnage), Robert J. Binick, Katelyn Gallagher, Garrett Hughes, and software lead Chris Bush. Front row—Zippo team: Scott Brazil, hardware lead Sean Haeffner (holding Zippo), software lead Angela Cannaliato, and Samuel Frey.
The students, aptly named the Pyromaniacs, entered two robots in the contest, which drew competitors from all over the United States and countries such as Israel, Canada, Indonesia, and China. Robot Pwnage (pronounced "ownage") won first place in the Senior Division, competing against 49 robots designed by colleges, universities, and dedicated hobbyists from around the world. Zippo took third place in the High School Standard Division, with stiff competition from nine Israeli teams and several other international powerhouses.

Competitors had to build and program an autonomous robot to navigate a maze representing a model house, locate a lit candle, and extinguish the candle in the shortest amount of time—all with no remote controls. "This is the toughest robotics you could do," says Ann, pointing out that the maze included mirrors, paneling, white walls, and patches of carpet designed to confuse the robots.

The Pyromaniacs persevered through substantial software and hardware setbacks and challenges, which ultimately served to galvanize them and strengthen their Christian faith. Sean Haeffner, hardware lead for Zippo, says, "Earlier this year, we weren't even sure if we could make it to the competition. As it turns out, we did make it, and we did extremely well." Together, this close-knit group of students demonstrated their thorough knowledge of programming, electronics, circuitry, the BX-24 microcontroller, and a hexadecimal (base 16) numbering system.

According to Gordon Webb, hardware lead for Pwnage, "Most of the robots from competing teams were comparable to ours from a hardware standpoint, but not from a software standpoint. With the level of programming our robots contained, most of the competitors' robots could have performed just as well as ours did." Pwnage and Zippo contained over 1,260 lines of code each. Chris Bush, software lead for Pwnage, maintains, "We couldn't have achieved this victory without the excellent design of our hardware leaders, but we couldn't have done it without God either."

"All of the planning, learning, and hard work really paid off at the contest," says software programmer Katelyn Gallagher. "We had the chance to meet the other contestants and see their incredible designs and innovations, such as hover-bots, walking robots, and even a robot powered by a GameBoy."

For all nine of these young homeschoolers, the competition represented much more than the culmination of three years of dedicated work. "I started with the desire and dream of competing, with no knowledge whatsoever of anything technical," remarks Angela, whose simple wish to compete launched the team. "I discovered many talents that I didn't know I had, gaining lasting friendships and winning with robots my teammates and I built and programmed from scratch."

 Other Resources

Get more details on Trinity College's Fire Fighting Home Robot Contest.

For information on homeschool robotics, contact Ann Cannaliato at

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