Bhutanese youth show talent for technology and robotics given the opportunity

The youth have an exciting platform to exhibit their interest in science and technology these days. They can even showcase their talent for robotics at an international level. This is just what a group of students from Loselling Middle Secondary School, Thimphu are doing. The 3 boys and 3 girls, aged between 14 years to 18 years, from the school have designed a robot called Thunder-Bot.

The group left to Dubai on 22 October to represent Bhutan in a robotic competition at FIRST Global Challenge 2019. The FIRST Global Challenge is a yearly Olympics-style robotics competition organized by the International First Committee Association to promotes STEM education and careers for youth.

In 2018, the same competition took place at Mexico, whereby Bhutan bagged 5th aligned. This is the second time that Bhutan is participating in the competition and they will be competing with 193 countries.

The theme this year is Ocean Opportunities where they have to build a robot to clean up the oceans, focusing on ocean pollution that negatively impact marine life.

A teacher accompanies the team from Loselling MSS along with two mentors from FabLab Bhutan.

The participants shared that it is one of the biggest opportunities in their lives, as they have not done something as challenging as this before. They said that their interest in designing robots grew after seeing the functions of robots in various platforms, especially after watching such competitions on television.

“Since then, we started browsing the Internet, read successful articles online and repaired some electronic devices at home. Each time that we repair a thing, the more interest grew in us. And that is how we are into this task as a team,” they said.

The team said such opportunities pushes them to do even better. They are grateful to both their teachers and parents for being supportive and considerate in their endeavour.

“We have the determination and we can do it. Parents come to the lab with tea and snacks which further encourage us to work even harder and even better. They are proud that we are representing Bhutan,” they said.

Meanwhile, the youngest team member, 14-year-old Sherab Yangzom said she was inspired to get into robot designing and other technology after watching it on TV and online. “I got curious and I started YouTubing, browsed on what AI is all about, and I have attended training on coding,” she said.

She said knowing her interest fits in with the importance placed on innovation and technology in the country. She stated such opportunities can further enhance youth engagement and becomes constructive instead of wasting time on negative things.

She said, “Like me, there are many who are interested in this field and they just need the platform. If we have then we can do much better. My parents were always supportive and I am so honoured to get this opportunity.”

FIRST Global organization gave out the robotic kits to all the 193 nations, and thereby, the participants held discussions on building the robot based on the given theme, which are usually global issues. All the countries have to use the same kit.

Teacher (mentor) of Loselling MSS,Thinley Namgyel, said the students did research on robots and the theme before using the robotic kit practically.

Coming up with the design was a major challenge as they are just class X students, he said. “It really was difficult to do without any experience in the past because we had to know functions of every part of the robot. However, after so much of debate, weaknesses and strength, we could come up with a final design,” he added.

He said the team tested the robot many times with several failed attempts. There were different designs to be tested which required time and resources. The other challenge he shared was on difficulty in balancing school timing and timing for robot designing.

He said, “This is not a project where one can come empty headed. Lots of time and energy is required, however, they could manage everything so well and could perform better in both academic and for the competition.”

He shared that it was overwhelming to see so many students showing their interest and coming forward to pitch their ideas in robot designing. “The moment we got an invitation letter from REC, we have asked interested students to come up with an idea, and there were many. Some came repeatedly after numerous rejection and this shows their interest and passion in it,” he added.

Even with the time limitation, the team built Thunder-Bot in just three months. They worked 6 days a week and 5 to 6 hours a day, after school.

“As far as the competition is concerned, I would expect the best result, and beyond the competition, I would expect my student to learn that the bigger problem can be solved with team work and innovative thinking. I want them to get ignite their passions on STEM education,” he added.

In addition, he said 21st Century education should produce skilled students, not just with the theories. They expect the team to meet with other students and share their experience in the field of technology.

Given the opportunities and platform, he said that the Bhutanese students have the potential and working with them was a phenomenal experience.

20-year-old Rinzin Tsheten who is currently working with the FabLab said that getting a chance to represent Bhutan last year in Mexico was a learning experience for him, and that he could come up and share his experience with the follow youth.

He said, “I want to spread everything I know, but technical and financial support is what we need. Apart from that, having to convince the elderly people on our ideas is always challenging. If given a chance, the youth can contribute a lot and we would do better with time.”

He graduated from high school in 2016 and since then he started working with Fab Lab as his interest was in science and technology.

Director of FabLab, Karma Lhakyi, said that Bhutan, in terms of technology, is moving quite fast. “His Majesty is also so concerned about the youth in the country, and his emphasis on technology and STEM. So, I think as an individual, we should support that and bring awareness,” she added.

She also said that if STEM is incorporated in schools for students to learn at an early age then they could get engaged with the coding.

Students today have the sincerity and passion in what they do. They have the potential and they hope that in future they will come up with lots of solution infusing technology in solving the problems in Bhutan, she said.

The team who left for Dubai are the champion of the National STEM Olympiad 2019 which took place in Mongar.

They bagged first place among the 16 schools competing under the theme Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Sustainable Farming.

The initial invitations were sent to all the schools in the country, however, only 20 proposals made it through. The selected schools were provided with the robotic kit, after which people from FabLab and REC made a field evaluation, whereby they have disqualified 4 schools leaving only 16 schools for the finals.

FabLab ensures three major contributions; gender equality, inclusiveness and innovations. The event was made possible with a support and contribution from ROM, REC and MoE, said FabLab.

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