You only have to read Robocup Junior’s objectives to know it is a good thing. The first two read:
1. To encourage young people to take an interest in scientific and technological fields, to cultivate their interest through robotic competitions through hands on creation.
2. RoboCupJunior Australia will help young people to expand their social, intellectual and problem solving skills, helping them to develop into creative and independent adults.
There are basically three levels of competition: Dance, Rescue and Soccer. In Dance teams create a show using their robots and, if they wish, themselves. It’s a great way to demonstrate creativity as well as building and programming skills. The other two competitions are more what people might expect of robotics. In Rescue a robot is programmed to independently negotiate a maze and rescue an object. In Soccer, teams design and program two robots to compete against an opposing pair of robots by kicking an infra-red transmitting ball into their designated goal.
The resulting competitions show a depth of skill, creativity and teamwork that would warm any educator’s heart. From my own experience the most important lesson to come out of Robcup is the most unexpected. It’s not about the technical programming or the building – although these are valuable. Indeed, I think it’s terribly important for the kids to understand how the real world can impact on what they are doing. If you create a computer program it will run pretty much the same the whole time. A robot adds in a whole pile of variables: the friction from the carpet, are the batteries charged, did someone remember to tighten the wheel. All great learning experiences but not the most important thing. No, the most important lesson is how to work as a team. That can be the most difficult thing for a group of techy kids to work around: when to compromise, when to let go of your personal killer idea that no one else agrees with, when to not be the centre of attention. These are tough lessons but ones that will carry the kids a long way in life when taken together with their technical skills.
The team I’m mentoring have called themselves the Awesomely Random Geeks. They range in age from 8 to 11 and are building their robots using LEGO Mindstorms and the excellent Enchanting programming environment. I love watching them come up with ideas and solving problems; although keeping ten kids on task, without actively taking control, gives me a deep appreciation of the work done by sheep dogs.
The competition takes place nationally. Here in NSW the Sydney Regional Competition is on Sunday 12 August in Chatswood and the NSW Open is on 20-21 August at UNSW. Full details are on the Robocup Junior web pages.