Many of you who have been following us over last several months are already aware that Rukmini Foundation helped to form a team of high school students that represented their country in First Global Challenge 2017 held in Washington DC. The team of two girls and four boys along with their robot “RUKUBOT” participated in the event where they showcased their robotics skills. More importantly, they interacted with about a thousand high school student from all over the world and had an experience of a lifetime. They were also exposed to the inspirational speeches from Dean Kamen, inventor of Segway, entrepreneur, and philanthropist and the President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim who challenged the students in the audience to be the first generation to end extreme poverty. One of our team members, Rubi was also heard in an NPR story. The team returned inspired, motivated and most importantly with an elevated sense of their own abilities and aspirations.
This all started from a referral by some friends who visited Nepal (Dr. Richard Wukich and Mike Stubna) and then a call from Admiral Joe Sestak, a retired Navy Admiral, and President of FIRST Global, the organizing body of this event. The FIRST Global Challenge or International Robotics Olympics as it was also called, sought to bring together high school kids from all over the world with a varying level of skills and backgrounds. Unlike the sporting events of the Olympics, the game played in the event was termed “Coopertition” because of the incentive placed for cooperation among allies and the opponents as well. The idea was to cultivate a culture of cooperation among the youth in the world so that they can come together to solve the biggest global challenges, such as climate change, poverty, hunger and in the case of this event, water security.
When we heard about this opportunity, we were excited about the opportunity but also quite skeptical about being able to form a team. Schools we have partnered with in Nepal are from rural communities where the students do not have any programming, electronics or robotics exposure…sometimes not even electricity. Education in those schools mainly focuses on traditional courses and aims to get students to pass their grade exams. Technology education is not only expensive but also considered too advanced for high school students. We have to admit that we shared some of the same skepticism. We were not only concerned about our ability to provide the required technical skills to the students in short time but also about the costs involved with it. This project was going to be very expensive for a small non-profit like Rukmini Foundation, and we did wonder if the investment would be worth it. Some of our concerns were addressed when FIRST Global assured us that they would help in sharing some costs and to provide guidance as needed.
With that assurance, and lots of hope, we approached our schools and community leaders to see if they would like to take this challenge on. We believed that being a part of this would be an inspiration to the community, and this fit into our goal of investing on ongoing quality education improvement projects in our partner schools. We weren’t sure what the schools, and more importantly, the students would think of this “crazy” idea. We were a little surprised to see over 60 students (boys and girls) come out to take part in learning more. We were happy to see this overwhelming interest from the students. We formed the team based on aptitude, interest and motivation level, and possible impacts on their lives and a possibility of giving back to the community.
Perhaps this idea wasn’t as crazy as we thought. From that large group, we were able to interview, test and select a group of 6 students from 2 of our partner schools who would eventually become known to us as Team RukuBot. As expected though, there were lots of hiccups along the way, but as I look back on this after the successful participation, the thing I take away is that we should never doubt the children. We, the adults, thought this might be impossible, but the kids showed us exactly what is possible.
Because of my background in Computer Science, I volunteered to oversee the program while a volunteer in Nepal, Satish Aryal, my brother, accepted to work as the operation manager for the entire project. He brought in local experts in robotics to help with the team formation and for initial mentoring of the team. Unfortunately, we could not continue working with the external expert because of the cost and logistical challenges, but fortunately, our operation manager, Satish stepped in to serve as a full-time Team Mentor and guide the team with mechanical designs. We were able to team up across thousands of miles thanks to the Internet, as I taught the team remotely about basic electronics, sensors, actuators and embedded devices while Satish worked with them to build basic robots.
Just from the remote sessions, I could tell that the students were intelligent, but also very receptive to the lessons. They were motivated to get hands on experience in robotics. They did all the hard work while Satish guided them at every step. I was so impressed by their perseverance and their attempts to research on their own and come up with solutions. Some of the students in the team were preparing for Secondary Education Examination (S.E.E.), which is a national standardized test also known as the “Iron Gate” for its impact on future opportunities based on your score. Although I have my personal reservations about the effectiveness of these standardized national tests, which I believe motivates rote learning and curtails creativity, I also did not want them to perform badly. I commend them for making time in their busy schedule to work on this project. Although their main priority was to prepare for the dreaded test during those days, they also made sure that they keep learning about sensors, actuators, programming, and mechanics every day. I was happy and relieved to understand that team members did well in the tests. In fact, Rubi, the team spokesperson finished with the highest score in her entire school in this exam, thus proving to all of us that extracurricular activities like this are not bad for your studies.
As I mentioned earlier, we faced many challenges along the way. Even with the remote classes that we tried to conduct, lack of consistent Internet access made it very tough. For many of these sessions, a two-way video conference was necessary, but the bandwidth and quality of Internet access made that impossible at times. We maintained our patience, however, and did the best we could. We do know that this is a problem we need to address for the long-term because we have had lots of discussions in the foundation about delivering online classes to our partner schools in order to boost the quality of education. This was the first real test of this, and we came across several challenges due to the lack of infrastructure. Having the influential and competent local mentor turns out to be the key in making the distant learning more effective.
Our Nepal volunteers, school and community leaders and parents also played an important role in supporting the team. Our partner school, Shikharapur provided a space to work for the team while the foundation made sure that they had all of the resources needed. The team along with Nepal Volunteers from Rukmini Foundation also ran several events around the theme of climate change, water management, and environment to increase public awareness on these topics. Thanks to the global prestige of this event, the team was highlighted in national news media, and they even got to meet with the Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister where they demonstrated what many would consider an improbable feat for the students in community/public schools.
After several months of preparation, and a long flight to DC, the team arrived for the main event. Most of the Rukmini Foundation team were there to support and cheer the accomplishment of these six students and also to ensure the team members re well adjusted and ready for the event. Once the game play started, we had an immediate setback when the robots collided and the controls were affected. The team learned from this setback and quickly resolved them. The highlight of the event for our team was the second game on the second day when the team robot did everything as expected. In that match play, our alliance with Team Oceania scored the highest score in all the matches played between any two alliances during the events. At the end of the event, we were ranked 38 among more than 150 countries worldwide. It was the result we had not expected six months ago when all this started. This showed us that the kids learned how to deal with the setback, how to take feedback and also how to work with another team to achieve success in this “Coopertition”.
One of the key lessons for the team was the importance of preparation and practice and how to deal with adversity. The team also learned that practicing in the same scenario as in the actual game play is also important. Simulating the exact game play was not possible during our practice sessions, so we suffered from that during our run. For example, equipment failure due to multiple WiFi connections in a small space was not something we could test in our practice run, and it costs us a chance to do well in one game. We also learned lessons from our practice, for example, when the team had a problem with the hanging mechanism in one of the game play, the team knew exactly how to fix that because they run into the same issue while they were practicing. The days were long and tiring for the team, but they enjoyed every moment of it, and learned from it. They learned not only from each other, but from what other teams were doing. They really liked sharing the tabling with Team Netherlands, who became fast friends.
To paraphrase the wonderful words of FIRST Global Founder, Dean Kamen, the event was not about winning or losing, but about learning, exploring, building and cooperating and breaking cultural and language barriers among allies from different corners of the world. We fully agree with him that most of the robots that participated in this challenge will lose, but all of the participants will win because they took part in an experience with a lifelong impact and lessons that will help them to become the leaders we need for the future. Along with that, this project showed us that Robotics and STEM is not just for the rich or for boys alone. The girls on our team, along with the many that came out for trials, showed that girls have an interest in this and an aptitude. If we are going to solve the world’s biggest problems, we need everyone involved, and the girls of Team RukuBot showed what they can do. With that, I would like to thank everyone involved in making this dream a reality for our team and our communities.
Chief Technology Officer / Mentor, Team RukuBot