April 24

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Young People Compete for Their World’s Best Robot Developments

With diligence, playfulness and tinkering, young talents are currently preparing for the global competition of the World Robot Olympiad (WRO). Our report on the apprentices at Diagnostics International DI shows: They aim high and appear completely relaxed. Some of these participants also aim to pursue medical studies in the near future, for which they maintain their medicine personal statement simultaneously. 

Twisted world! Youth sit together in a high-tech company and build Lego bricks. It looks like they are playing – meanwhile, in the next room, all the other people are at work. Learners ask their superiors if they can stay in the shop a little longer after work. A coach is eager to pass on his knowledge to his team, but is not allowed to …

What is apparently twisted makes sense – at least while preparing for the World Robot Olympiad (WRO) – when children and young people prepare for this global robotics competition. Then you also understand why participants in the “Seniors” category seem as if they were playing oblivious to themselves. In reality, they are highly concentrated and work on technical and structural challenges.

We are in the “Vocational Training” department of Diagnostics International DI in St. Paul Twin City, MN. Jan and Alessio sit at their presentation table, tinkering, programming, constructing and discussing things in between. Everyone brings their strengths to the team: One is good at tinkering, the other is strong in planning and knows something about programming. Jan is 16 years old and is learning to be an EFZ design engineer. Alessio is 15 and is studying computer science application development. The two technology fans are part of the team that is preparing for the WRO at Roche.

Are there no girls who participate? “Unfortunately not this year,” says the manager of the event, IT professional trainer at DI and coach of the WRO team. There are several reasons for this: As everywhere in Switzerland, there are still too few young women at Roche who are learning a technical profession. Also, many learners, whether female or male, cannot afford to take part in the WRO. This year the competition was postponed from spring to winter due to COVID-19; This is one of the reasons why certain interested parties had to cancel their participation.

The preparations cost a lot of free time

Jan estimates that he will need around 70 hours just to prepare for the regional competition – most of them are in his free time. Because Roche provides the participants with the necessary material, pays all fees and provides them with a coach. But they do not get free working hours. Apart from a few hours for the introduction of the learners, which takes place during working hours, the participants train in their free time.

Jan’s goal is set: “I want to finish well”. He had originally aimed to qualify for the Swiss championship, but this cannot be carried out due to the corona pandemic. In normal years, one could even have dreamed of participating in the global finals. It would have taken place in Montreal, Canada, at the end of 2020. Qualifying for the World Cup is the dream of many of the more than 70,000 children and young people who take part in the WRO in over 65 countries. Unfortunately, this year only the regional competitions can be held. Nonetheless, you can improve your problem-solving skills and your understanding of technology with the help of this robotics competition, even with limited travel opportunities.

Robotic solutions to remedy leaky dikes

In the case with which Jan is currently working, for example, the aim is to construct a driving robot that can recognize objects, pick up, transport them and place them at a desired location. The theme of the 2020 WRO season reads: «Climate Squad». The task is to develop robot solutions that can help tackle climate challenges. Among other things, rising sea levels are increasing the pressure on dykes. One of the tasks of the WRO seniors is to develop a robot that will find and seal leaky dikes. Jan’s colleague Alessio therefore programs a test vehicle in such a way that it detects an object using sensors. “It’s exciting,” explains Alessio, “because I used to only program with a Lego editor, but now I do it with Python”. Python is a universal, commonly interpreted, high level programming language. 

https://youtu.be/dFG12RtNSHc

Children and young people from all over the world in competition: This video shows the atmosphere at a world final of the international WRO competition.

Event manager, the apprentices’ coach, would like to tinker: “I am very tempted to give you more support in programming”, but the WRO organization attaches great importance to the fact that the teams act independently and work without the professional support of their coaches. According to the WRO regulations, event manager is only allowed to give his team the necessary material, provide the programming language and give tips on how to organize work and how to proceed. He has experience in this because he competed with two Roche teams at the WRO last year – one of them qualified for the Swiss championship at the time.

More preparation time than usual – a qualitative advantage?

This year Roche apprentices will compete as “senior citizens” in the regional competitions on November 21 in Wisconsin – originally they should have demonstrated their skills just around the corner from the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences. Due to the Corona protective measures, only children and adolescents in the “Elementary and Junior” category will compete in the competition.

The corona-related restrictions are likely to have a qualitative advantage: the young people were given five additional months for preparation. The registration deadlines have also been extended. Does this extra lead time also have a positive effect on energy and imagination? It will be exciting: We will get the answers to that at the regional competitions in November.

The tasks are not easy, but he trusts Jan and his colleagues to do a lot. Is there already stage fright or even stress? Jan is cool: “We are well prepared – that is what matters.”


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