Monday, April 14, 2008

Robot Competition Observations

The Israeli boys that we were hosting this week, for the Trinity College Fire-Fighting Robot competition, left this morning.

I've been remiss in my blogging because of my hosting obligations and other things going on around here in general.

But here are a few thoughts and my own personal observation especially after discussion with other participants in the competition this year:

The robotics competition was a disappointment this year. The Chinese teams swept the placings this time around, not because they were smarter or more innovative, but because they just did better. The Chinese all used the same commercially made robots which were not manufactured or invented or substantially programmed by any of the kids that participated. I doubt any of the kids could really even tell you how their robot worked. The adult leaders gave directions.

The whole point of the competition is not merely to win, but to get kids thinking about how to problem solve and how to put an idea into practice, and to build the thing from scratch, and how to get it to solve the problem. These Chinese kids are essentially given a kit and they put it together and they use pretty much the same programming from one robot to the next. There were no deviations within their delegation. Their robots were, for all intents and purposes, identical in design and programming. They employed no originality and no real innovation. But their times through the mazes were the fastest. Good for them. They used fast motors. That is what gave them victory. But as for true problem solving and originality, I think they get a huge zero. Personally, I think they ought to have been disqualified. I had heard that each kid on their team spent upwards of $20,000 to compete (or perhaps the Chinese government pays their way), so I suppose the judges just couldn't send them home empty handed - especially when Chinese sponsorship of the competition may be involved. It just was quite disappointing.

Other teams really worked hard on some interesting and sophisticated robots and you could see that they really spent the time and LEARNED from their experiences in problem solving. That's what it is all about. They were the true winners. Technological advances come from innovation and originality and exploration through trial and error. This is something the kids on the Chinese teams unfortunately will not know; they will only know they have won a trophy.

Meanwhile, a local boy and acquaintance of our family, Nathanial Barshay, took the International champion cup (along with his team mate) and Nathanial took first place in the written part of the competition. Congratulations goes out to him.

Additionally, a homeschool team from Michigan also did quite well with their robot called Flutterbot. It was nice to meet and talk to them.

The Israeli teams took 4th place and on down in the high school competitions. All results are here.

Finally, it is truly a shame that more American middle and high schools do not participate in or encourage participation in these events. They do not even seem to foster the desire for application of math and science in this very important area of learning coupled with competition. Oh well....

We had a nice week with our guests and we were sad to see them leave.