Sometimes it’s nice to get away from your desk for a bit.
A few weeks ago I found myself standing in the middle of a room packed full of children, cheering and clapping as a little Lego Mindstorms robot raced its way towards the finish line. Schools from all over the region had brought robots to compete in the regional finals of the Tomorrow’s Engineers EEP Robotics Challenge. The “Speed Challenge” – the first category of the competition in which the robots have to race 400cm in a straight line – may sound simple, but as we could quickly see on the track, getting them to stick to a straight course is a challenge in itself! Robots crashed into the light barriers at the start and end of the track, and some were dangerously close to taking a dive off the long table before being herded back on by their creators…
All this came as part of Ghyston’s offering of “Charity Holiday” – the company offers a pool of days which employees can claim to volunteer for any charitable cause they’re interested in. In my case, I volunteered as a judge at the Robotics Challenge, helping to get children and particularly girls engaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). It’s such an exciting event to be involved in, and when you see the children’s faces glowing with excitement or screwed up in concentration as they tackle a tricky problem, it really feels like you’re making a difference.
My role on the day involved judging the robot designs and the software the children had written to tackle the challenges. Along with volunteers from Airbus and the RAF, we scored the teams on the Lego components they’d made, the programming problems they’d solved and above all the strategy they’d taken in solving the inevitable difficulties. A key part of the design category was asking them to identify what they’d learned and what they’d change next time – more than anything else, the competition is about introducing the 11-14 year olds to the STEM way of thinking!
In the spirit of this, the rest of the challenge was as much about participation and learning from mistakes as it was about success. Engineering, as we were told in the opening speech, is all about trial and error, about being persistent, about making mistakes and learning from them and coming up with something better. (Or sometimes, about seeing that another team has something better and “learning” from that…) I was really impressed by how resilient the children were in the face of robots misbehaving on the field, whether because the actual mat was set up slightly differently to theirs, the light sensors wouldn’t work in the different light of the challenge room, or because the robots simply wouldn’t perform reliably enough.
Writing software as an adult is certainly a different experience – for starters, we’re able to use business-grade software and hardware which doesn’t have as many reliability issues – but the themes of having to build adaptable applications and being persistent in the face of difficult challenges still shine through. It’s great to see the children so excited and committed to this kind of problem-solving, and I really hope that many of them go on to pursue careers in STEM – be it software, science or engineering like the hosts from Airbus.
Meanwhile, I was almost sorry for the competition to end, as the winners were announced and schools walked away with trophies or even a ticket to the national finals at the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham. I’m certainly looking forward to volunteering for a competition like this again next year!
Image credit: EEP Robotics Challenge leaflet