Seeing teenage boys and girls hunched over hundreds of pieces of Lego in a school gymnasium, you would think this was a fun activity teachers had thought up. However, the determined glint in their eyes and their serious demeanour, as well as the laptops hooked up to their robotic contraptions, told you they meant business.
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At the Al Mawaheb Model School for Girls in Abu Dhabi, technology fanatics from schools across the UAE last week competed for a chance to represent their country at the World Robot Olympiad 2008 to be held in Yokohama, Japan. More than 60 teams and 170 students vied for first prize in one of three categories.
"The Dark Knights" from Our Own High School, Al Warqa'a in Dubai, annihilated their competition in the Open Category, where teams worked on the theme of saving the global environment. They had to develop a robotic solution incorporating Lego NXT for a problem related to the theme.
The grade 11 team members included Vignesh Karthik, Saigokul Kannan and Atif Saleem.
"We've been waiting for the competition since last year. Once the dates and topic were announced, we immediately started working," the team members said.
"We feel like we're floating on a cloud!" Saleem added.
The members said they were inspired by last year's winners who were from their school.
Their floating robot was built to pick up objects and debris in water. The portable device could be controlled remotely and had uses in cleaning up oil spills.
Shyam Rangarajan, Ayaneari Karthik and Rihabh Kabra, also in grade 11, won in the Regular Category.
Their team designed a robot that traversed a specially-made table provided by the organisers and performed a number of tasks. It was able to move around the table, knock down four soft drink cans placed in each corner and pick up 16 ping pong balls and place them in a container on the table in the shortest time.
Notes chatted with Kerry Bailey, one of the judges and the representative of the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), which hosted the event.
He said the most number of participants were in the Exploratory category. "These are students using Lego NXT for the first time. It's a totally new experience for them but these students' efforts are not judged," he said.
He said some interested Open Category teams chose themes such as saving energy with many possible combinations and solutions. "They've got to present their solution to the panel of judges and the judges will give points on their criteria to include the actual robot they've included, charts. What they're actually doing is giving a business presentation looking at their robot solution."
The Open Category teams had 150 minutes to put their presentation together, and some brought robots that had been pre-assembled.
In the Regular Category teams had to bring their own kits, laptops and programmes and were not allowed any outside help. While the actual assembly of the robot was done during the competition, the ideas and planning could be done earlier.
"It really tests their thinking skills, creativity and innovation," said Bailey. "And also tests their skills in mathematics, IT and language because they have to work together as a team – it's a multi-faceted project."
Promoting science in schools
ADEC director general Dr Mugheer Khamis Al Khaili said: "ADEC is very proud to host and conduct this excellent academic-based initiative. The Robot Olympiad is a valuable means to get students to consider the study of science and technology as a career and to produce valuable inventions that will benefit our society."
He said ADEC was actively involved in including robotics in school curriculums to enhance students' science and technology skills.
While ADEC hosted this year's event, Edutech Middle East, provider of technology-enabled knowledge solutions, Lego education and manufacturer and supplier of robotic solutions, also assisted. Its chief executive A.S.F. Kareem said that the "outstanding" success of previous editions of the UAE National Robot Olympiad had inspired them to continue supporting the initiative.
"With the great competition put up by the competing schools last year, we are definitely in for another exciting contest this year. We commend ADEC for undertaking this meaningful project, which will support and promote sciences in our schools," he said.
Edutech has been a part of the competition since it started. The event, Kareem said, has become a defining moment for many young and talented students – not only those who have emerged as winners but also those who have continuously worked towards improving their skills in robotics.