Playing ball with Robot

A COUPLE of days ago, Rashed Toukan and his fellow team members were trying to fit the arms to the body. But something seemed to have gone wrong. The arms were not fitting the body. Then 16-year-old Toukan realised their mistake:

By Vijay Dandige (Contributor)

Published: Thu 3 May 2007, 10:23 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 12:29 AM

their calculations were wrong. 'So we had to change the whole structure from the beginning. And I did a new structure from my mind,' recalled Toukan, an 11th standard student, referring to a robot that he and his friends are making.

Toukan and his school colleagues from Al Mawakeb School at Garhoud are among the students from three UAE schools who are getting a chance to build and programme a robot. The other two schools are: Al Mawakeb School at Al Barsha and American Community School of Abu Dhabi. This is the first time that three schools from the UAE and three from Kuwait, along with 12 from Qatar, are taking part in the Botball robotics competition, organised by Carnegie Mellon University of Qatar.

Botball is a U.S.-based organisation that introduces robotics to high school students. Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar brought the programme from the U.S. to Qatar in 2005 and has been expanding it each year. Moreover this year, Al Jazeera Children's Channel is filming a four-part documentary on Botball that will include everything from profiles of the students and the teams to building of the robots and their performances in the competitions.

To familiarise the students with the mechanics of making robots, Carnegie Mellon University of Qatar organised an intensive two-day robotics workshop for the participating 18 schools, which was attended by a teacher and the team leader of each school. The teams were given the necessary background and expertise to build and programme their own Lego Mindstorm robot. The learning experience will culminate in April and May when the teams from each country compete against each other to see whose robot completes the course. The winning team also must demonstrate the work they've done in order to programme their robot.

Country-level Botball competitions took place on April 28, in Doha, May 3 (today), in Kuwait and May 12, in the U.A.E. Twelve teams will compete in Doha, three in Kuwait and three in the U.A.E. The top two teams from each competition will then go on to compete in the Regional Botball Championship on May 24, in Doha.

Last week, a team from Carnegie Mellon, headed by instructor Mohamed Mustafa, took a road trip to the UAE and Kuwait, visiting the schools. 'The purpose of this trip was to follow up with the schools and see the progress they are making on their robots,' said Mustafa at a gathering of students, teachers and parents organised at a hotel's conference hall in Deira. 'We want to see if they are progressing the correct way and see where they need a boost.'

Mustafa said the competition is the university's attempt to deliver the knowledge of robotics in the region, because the meaning of robots is not well understood in the Middle East. 'And we thought the best way to teach that was to reach the high school students. So we started the robotics programme in high school, teaching students how to build robots, programme them etc,' he explained. 'Students learn to play with Lego parts, learn a simple language to programme the robot, and the competition is designed to see if they have understood. This way they get a chance to explore and use their creativity and imagination to make robots.'

Mustafa pointed out that learning to make robots has several advantages. He added that he was really impressed with the work the UAE students have been doing.

Wael Abou Hawash, teacher of Al Mawakeb School at Al Barsha, agreed that there are great reasons to do Botball. 'There is teamwork, excitement, competition and above all: learning,' he said. 'Our students are learning in much more ways than just academic. A competition like this teaches them real-life applications. And this way the knowledge goes deep, so they won't forget it soon because they're totally involved in it: physically, mentally and emotionally.'

C. Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon, Qatar

FOR MOST of the students it is a whole new experience, as most of them knew about robots only from movies. 'I've only wondered about robots. But now I'm discovering there is a lot more to it than just pushing buttons,' said Ali Alaa, an 11 th standard student from Al Mawakeb School at Garhoud.

For Rashed Toukan, who is the team leader of Al Mawakeb School at Al Barsha, the competition is important because he feels the future depends heavily on robotics and programming. 'I'm planning to get into bio-chemistry or bio-technology, and I think robotics and programming will help me in my future career,' he said.

He added that, most importantly, the experience of making a robot is teaching them team work.

C. Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon Qatar, has announced an extra incentive for all of the participants this year. The team that wins the regional Botball championship in May will get to take a trip to the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. The winning team, along with one teacher, will get economy-class, round-trip airfare and lodging for the trip and Thorpe, who is the former head of the Robotics Institute, will lead the group on a tour.

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