UP mentors help ‘Springbot’ team of SA learners score 6th place in Global Robotics Olympics

Posted on September 17, 2018

A team of learners from Tshwane, mentored by the University of Pretoria’s (UP) MakerSpace centre and a group of UP engineering students, was placed sixth out of 180 teams from around the world participating in the annual FIRST Global Challenge Robotics Olympics in Mexico City.

The teams were required to build and code their own robot. Team South Africa (which nicknamed itself ‘The Springbots’), in addition to placing sixth, won The Walt Disney Award for Imagination and Creativity, awarded to the team that displays the most creative approach to problem-solving. The award was largely due to Team SA’s performance in the qualifying round, during which they collected the most points ever scored in a qualifying round, against previous record-holder Team Venezuela.

UP’s MakerSpace centre and a group of engineering students started mentoring the team in July, training them in how to build and code a functional and competition-ready robot. The team, comprising four learners – Masana Mashapha (Pretoria Girls High); Tshenolo Mokwana  (Olivenhoudbosch Secondary); and Barbara Moagi and the captain, Mikhaeel Reddy (Hoërskool Uitsig) – then headed to the annual FIRST Global Challenge Robotics Olympics, held in Mexico City over three days in mid-August. Working within this year’s theme of “Energy Impact”, Team SA did their mentors and country proud with their sixth-place finish on a global stage.

FIRST Global is comprised of a number of prestigious institutions, including Yale University. It invites each country to send a team to compete in its Robotics Olympics, which takes place in a different country each year.  Themed around the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering identified by the National Academies of Engineering, a different challenge is designed each year, aimed at fostering understanding and cooperation among the youth, and encouraging them to use their abilities to solve the world’s problems.

This year’s theme, “Energy Impact”, required learners to think strategically on how to make the shift towards a cleaner and more efficient energy source. Robot kits were provided by FIRST Global to all teams to ensure they had the same physical resources. The team had to build and code the robot to allow them to see how mechanical components, coupled with software, can address real-world problems relating to sustainable and renewable energy.

“UP’s MakerSpace, which drives technology and innovation to support teaching and learning at the university, partnered with the FIRST Global Higher Education Network, which tries to ensure that the next generation of students can tackle the problems the world will be facing,” says Sean Kruger, co-ordinator of UP MakerSpace. The FIRST Global Higher Education Network promotes the use of technology to drive economic growth, poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability, and supports school learners who want to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“This partnership and mentorship could not have been possible without the team leaders: Roxanne Reddy, a parent, and Wernich van Staden, a teacher at Hoërskool Uitsig, who were the guides to building the team as well as creating the link with MakerSpace,” Kruger says. “UP engineering students Andre Labuschagne, Caleb Tshionza, Hanno Cilliers, Chris du Plessis and Riaan Fourie advised the learners on design, building and field strategy. Student Anika Steen from Computer Engineering assisted with the coding, which controls the robot and ensures it could perform its function.”

The robot, which was required to be 50cm x 50cm, was then handed to the team of learners to dismantle, practice and redesign, based on MakerSpace’s advice for the competition. At the competition in Mexico, the team had to reassemble their unit and test its connectivity, software and mechanics to ensure it was functional. Their robot was then given just two-and-a-half minutes to select the best energy options by placing boxes in corresponding areas to activate the chosen energy source. In some instances, mechanisms such as the wind turbine crank needed to be activated.

The team was then judged on the capabilities of its robot. On behalf of the MakerSpace and student training teams, Kruger says, “With this partnership, we wanted to play a role in Team SA’s great achievement. As mentors, there is no greater pleasure than seeing them succeed so brilliantly. It’s fantastic to be part of a team that not only supports addressing global challenges, but also demonstrates how technology is truly an enabler within South Africa.” 

Team Romania won first place, with Team USA featuring second.

From left to right: Andre Labuschagne, Sean Kruger, Anika Steen, Caleb Tshionza, Chris du Plessis, Riaan Fourie and Hanno Cilliers

- Author Primarashni Gower

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