After coming back home to Nepal from the FIRST Global Challenge, I wanted to share my story about our team’s journey from the villages of Nepal to the capital of the United States as part of FIRST Global Challenge. Even a month after the competition, I am still trying to make sense of our journey. It has felt like a dream, but the pictures we took and the friends we made proves that it was all real. I will start my story by thanking FIRST Global and Rukmini Foundation for making this dream a reality.

Team RukuBot interacting with people all over the world.

This dream started out as what leaders of Rukmini Foundation thought was a crazy idea. When FIRST Global asked us if we wanted to be part of the 1st international robotics competition, we believed that it was too much for our team and for our students to be able to take on. Luckily, we did not just give up, and I was asked to see if the foundation’s partner schools would be interested in this challenge. I was asked because of my background in Mechanical Engineering, but even for me, the idea of the students doing robotics was foreign. I am also an alumnus from one of these partner schools, so I know that our students do not have exposure to these kinds of things. Ignoring those concerns, we decided to see if there was interest in this project.

As a former student of Shikharapur School in Pharping, I had not worked in a lab in high school myself.  Only after I started Engineering college did I get the chance to work with different equipment and tools. While working in the lab, I came to understand how doing practical work in the lab made it easier to grasp the theories I was learning. It also made it more fun to learn by doing. It has been a long time since I went to school, but the situation remains the same in many schools of Nepal where students don’t have enough resources and opportunities to learn science by doing.

The interest in this project surprised us all.

We were amazed by the response from the schools and the students. Over 60 kids from 2 schools attended our trials. We knew that we have many good students, but they do not get any practical work since there are no science labs in most of the schools in the rural areas. One area school, Arunodaya had a Science Lab and Shikharapur Community School just opened a basic science lab from the help of Rukmini Foundation. Students learn Science by reading course books only, so we were not sure if the students would be confident to take on this challenge. When we announced about the competition, more than 60 students showed interest in taking part.

This was quite amazing to see such an interest in science and robotics, but the next challenge was to select the right candidates who could work on this project and then compete in the challenge. We needed 5 -7 candidates between the age of 15 -18, and we had to come up with a way to find them. With the help of an independent evaluation team, we were able to conduct exercises and interviews to identify the 6 students who would become Team RukuBot. It was great to see that after our tests and interviews 2 of the 6 team members were girls.

We conducted interviews and hands-on “testing” to determine who had an interest and also the aptitude for this project.

After we settled on the team, we were still looking for a qualified mentor to lead the group throughout the journey. Finding somebody who could lead the team in building the robot and ultimately take them to the US was not easy. After searching for a while, l accepted the role of mentor/ teacher.  Although I had a pretty good understanding of the technology and Science involved, guiding and leading young people was going to be something new for me. I am glad that I accepted the challenge. 

Working with these young people has been the most rewarding experience.

Once the team was formed, we decided to come up with a name for our Team and the Robot we would build. It was named Team RUKUBOT, to honor the foundation’s namesake. Now we were ready to get to work. We had to design, construct, and run the robot. Working with students who had never been exposed to this type of project, it was going to be a challenge, but a fun one.

Because most of the students did not have even basic knowledge of Robotics, we had to begin with the basics. Luckily, I had support from my brother, Sandesh who has a professional background in Computer Science and Electronics. I also had the support of our US Team that provided encouragement and guidance throughout the project. After the selection of the team members, we knew that running regular classes on Robotics was crucial. Unfortunately, we did not have a classroom, any equipment or tools. From this to get to FIRST Global Challenge was going to be, well a challenge. I started by educating myself by reading different text books, journals, surfing web pages and different research works associated with robotics, science and technology.  With the support of Rukmini Foundation and guidance from Sandesh and a local expert, we purchased basic electronics and mechanical equipment and tools for initiating the Robotics class. We used locally available materials where possible to save on cost. Shikharapur School provided us some space and with that we began to build some simple robots while we waited for the FIRST Global Robotics Kit.

With the available room and tools, we began our journey to FIRST Global Challenge together. To learn the basics of programming and electronics devices, Sandesh conducted remote classes via Skype from California to Pharping. During those classes, we faced difficulties with our internet connection and even a loss of power several times. Sometimes we would have to move to a completely different place to take classes where internet access was available. The passion of the team members to learn kept them motivated and they learned really fast. The team developed different devices and learned different theories of sciences through hands on practice. Over the next few months, the team learned different programming languages and became familiar with electronics and mechanical parts, equipment and tools.  

We continued to face challenges though because during that period, four of our six team members had to prepare for the biggest exams of their lives, the national Secondary Education Examination (SEE) while the other two had to attend the board exams for Grade 11. There was so much pressure from everyone for the students to focus on those exams and nothing else, but all of us managed our time and we were able to run the classes while they studied for those exams.  In Nepal, most of the teachers, students, community members and guardians believe that students who are taking the SEE exams should not be involved in anything else. If they do anything else like hobbies or building robots they will not get good marks. Luckily for us, our students kept proving doubters wrong and Rubi, one of our two female team members, had the highest score in her entire school while learning how to build a robot. This result has shown many people that when students enjoy what they are learning, they can also succeed academically.

Rubi was also our spokesperson for the team. Here she is being interviewed by NPR at the FIRST Global Challenge.

As the students finished the exams of their lives, we also received our Robotics kit, which arrived at the Customs Office in Nepal. Never having done something like this, I had to learn how to retrieve something from Customs. It was not an easy process or inexpensive, but after many hurdles, we finally got our kit.  

Once the kit arrived, we were excited, but confused how to start. We learned together what we had to do next.

We had the kit, but we did not know where to start. If we had not practiced with the equipment that we purchased ourselves, we would have been even more lost. Thankfully, FIRST Global provided different manuals and guidance on how to use the kit. First, we had to read and understand those guidelines completely, including the game rules. Based on the specifications provided, we developed a flowchart and then started to design-test-redesign of different mechanical parts.  At first, we developed a simple Pushbot with the help of FIRST Global’s 24 hours online support service, which answered a lot of our questions. Sandesh also suggested a lot of areas for improvement, which helped us learn and improve as we went.

I was amazed at how quickly the students were learning, and our robot was coming together. Developing the Robot for the competition was not the only major task because we needed to test our robot first. To do so, we had to construct the game field in parallel with constructing the Robot. Team RUKUBOT worked together to construct a similar game field that all participating teams were going to use in the competition. We are thankful to Shikharapur School for providing us the room to do this. The students not only built a robot, but also got experience working with cement, sand, paints, plywood and more as they built this field. They were tired, but also very proud of what they built together. There was no class where they could learn something like this.

Taking a little rest after building our test arena.

After completing the construction of the Robot, we communicated with our FIRST Global partners about our design and practices. They were very happy with the progress that we had made. We were also honored to have different national media persons come to us and highlight our activities on different daily newspapers, online news and national television programs. We even had a chance to visit with different high-level government officials to demonstrate our progress on robotics. Everyone we met and talked with motivated us and wished for success. None of us had been exposed to so many things before, so we were honored and also felt the support of our communities and our country.

We were honored to present our work and show the robot to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education of Nepal

After months of learning about robotics to actually building a robot that works and sharing it with our communities, we felt ready to take on the FIRST Global Challenge. Our challenges were not over because we still needed to get approval from the US Embassy to travel to the US. Again, with the support of our sponsoring organizations, Rukmini Foundation and FIRST Global, we were able to get our visas to travel. On July 14th, we departed from Kathmandu on our way to Washington DC travelling more than 7500 miles. I was the only person from this group who had ever flown on a plane before, so I was really worried about the air travel for the team. In order to prepare our team for air travel, stay in the US and other details, we had an orientation from Prakriti who has led 2 teams of girls to the US as part of LitClub Nepal’s involvement in HerStory Summit. She helped us with a lot of details, from the visa process all the way through how we should network with other people in the US. Those classes helped us a lot, and because we were prepared, we did not face problems on our travel.  We arrived in Washington DC safely with our Robot where we met with Ms. Liz Twigg and other staff of FIRST global at the Washington DC airport. They guided us to our dorm where we would be living for the next few days. Since it was already 11 at night we were all very tired and went directly to sleep.  The team members stayed in different rooms with people from different countries, so this too was a new experience.

Team RukuBot lands in Washington DC.

In the morning, we reached the DAR Constitution Hall. There we found our spaces where we could rebuild our robot. We were worried because we had trouble in finding our robot packed in a wooden box, but volunteers and FIRST Global staff helped us in finding it. We got to work in rebuilding it and we had a practice match later that day. Up to this point, we had only practiced with a single robot on a single game field in our homeland, but when we had to play with two other robots working together against another team of 3 robots, we realized that we might have some more challenges.

Everybody involved in fixing problems with the robot.

Communicating and coordinating with teams from different countries was a very new experience to all  team members. They learned that problems can happen at any time, and we should not be discouraged by them, but should try to fix the problems through communication, coordination and cooperation with others. One example of this was when our robot stopped working during a game, but we figured out what the cause was, and we fixed the problem as a team along with assistance from volunteers and FIRST Global staff. After being settled and practicing, we were ready for the actual game play.

Team RukuBot along with members of Team Oceania. When we worked together, we were able to achieve the highest single game score of the entire competition, or as Mr. Kamen called it, “Coopertition”.

The opening ceremony, which was led by Admiral Joe Sestak and Mr. Dean Kamen was one of the most amazing things I have seen with my own eyes. Seeing our team enter the arena to a national song, and seeing all of the flags in the arena was like being in an actual Olympics. That was followed by an inspiring speech from Mr. Kamen, founder of FIRST Global who welcomed us and got the games underway.

Team RukuBot / Nepal makes its entrance on a world stage.

Over the next 2 days, we were supported by the Rukmini Foundation family and other Nepali organizations and individuals who came to wish us well. Thank you to everyone who supported us. In these 2 days, we participated in six rounds of game play. On first day of competition, we had some mechanical issues, which did not allow us to do well. The team was disappointed, but they were also resilient because they were able to fix the problem. The following day, our team performed very well, and at one point, we were close to being in the Top 10 in the entire competition. Through our alliance with Team Oceania and Team Mexico, we were part of the highest individual game score with 155 in the fifth round of the games. By the end, we had finished in 38 out of 163 teams, and this was a great moment of pride for us. For a team of students who had never done robotics before, being led by somebody who had not taught kids before, we thought we did really well.

Everyone in the team contributed to the success from beginning to the end.

After the games were over, we also enjoyed a wonderful closing ceremony. We had the privilege of listening to Mr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank whose message that we need to look to the young people to solve the problems of tomorrow was very inspirational for the team, and for everybody in the audience. He and Mr. Kamen also stressed the need to use STEM to solve the biggest problems in the world like: hunger, water security, climate change and more. The most inspirational point was that we can only solve these “grand challenges” through communication, coordination and cooperation with each nation and with the leadership of a new generation.

In the end, the position that we achieved in this challenge is not the most important thing. Our participation, our coordination, cooperation and communication that we had throughout this journey is what is important. Through this project and this challenge, we have learned that problems will arise while doing something new, but working together to fix those problem is what is most important. We have learned that the young people have the ability to amaze us with what they can achieve if they are given a chance. We have learned that we have friends all over the world that want to work together. In the words or Mr. Kamen, “By bringing the future STEM leaders of the world together in an engaging and collaborative environment that teaches them to communicate, cooperate, and work together, using the tools of science and engineering, they will gain the trust with one another that enhances a more truly global community despite differences and preconceived notions.” According to him, we were all winners for coming from different nations to participate in this challenge. While medals were distributed to the winning teams in ten different categories, we felt like winners too.

In remaining one and a half day, the team members finally had some time to relax. It had been a long few days and nights of nonstop working and playing. Along with our Rukmini Foundation family, we had the chance to explore some sites in Washington DC and Maryland. We especially enjoyed eating a meal of Daal Bhaat (Lentils and Rice) at Mr. Janak Acharya’s home. Mr. Acharya also took us all to see the ocean at the Chesapeake Bay, which was the first time for our team to touch the ocean. Thank you so much to Mr. and Mrs. Acharya for their hospitality. We felt like we were home.

From the hills of Nepal to a beach in the US. This was a big journey for us all.

After this exploration, we returned back to our homeland. Our family members, teachers and community members welcomed us with Khada and Mala (Garlands). We were very happy to be back home, but still feeling like we were dreaming.

To summarize some of the lessons that we learned from this project and experience, I noted the 10 most important things:

  1. Hard work and dedication in everything we do is the key to success.
  2. However, hard work is not enough if people have no opportunities and resources.
  3. When doing something new, we will face challenges and hardships. Being resilient enough to work through those challenges is what makes us successful.
  4. It is not just about individual talent. Communication, coordination and cooperation is needed to solve the biggest challenges.
  5. We have to address issues like water security, waste management and better usage of resources even though (and especially because) we have limited resources in Nepal.
  6. We have to increase the passion in our students to learn STEM because it is not just for people in rich schools and rich countries to learn.
  7. We need to provide adequate materials so that students can learn by doing.
  8. Being able to share your knowledge with others makes you even more knowledgeable.
  9. Education does not happen just in the classrooms. The kids in our team learned so much through hands on activities and even through playing. We must provide room for kids to play and have fun.
  10. Did I mention hard work already?

Thank you for following along this amazing journey of our team. Thank you again to FIRST Global’s staff and volunteers. Thank you to Rukmini Foundation for finding this opportunity for us and supporting us. Thank you to all of the Nepali supporters who came to visit us as well as those who wrote their support. Thank you to our global supporters who motivated us through Social Media. This is not the end of our journey though, as we will build on from this experience so that we can inspire future leaders (boys and girls) who will improve their communities, their country and their world.

Namaste,
Satish Aryal
Team RukuBot Mentor

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