Robotics contest designed to generate interest in engineering

A.M. Costa Rica/Aaron Knapp
Tiny machines had to stack chip-like objects.

Hundreds of science and engineering students gathered over the weekend at the University of Costa Rica’s basketball courts. They all were trying to design, build and program the best robot at the semifinals in a national competition.

The teams were in three age groups. Those who designed the most efficient robots for specific tasks moved on to the finals which will take place next weekend.

The three teams that win in each age group next week will go to Malaysia in November to represent Costa Rica in its debut appearance at the World Robotics Olympiad, a global robot-building competition organized by The LEGO Group in which teams from 60 countries compete.

“This is the first time in Costa Rica that we having this event,” said Alejandra Sánchez, an event coordinator and a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Costa Rica. “This is the first time we have three competitions, and this is the first time teams will go to Malaysia.”

The job is straight forward: Assemble a small machine that can pick up chips and move them to the correct place. That’s the basic rule for a competition in roboticas that picked semi-finalists this weekend for a showdown next weekend

Over the course of two days, more than 80 teams of two or three students competed against one another in three different age groups: 18 teams of students 12 and younger, 16 teams of students ages 13 to 16 and 47 teams of 16 to 19.

All three groups had eight-hour days designing three robots to perform different tasks. The two younger groups competed Saturday and the older groups, with a mix of university and high school students, competed on Sunday.

In addition to LEGO, the event was largely coordinated by a coalition of organizations gathered together by the Ministerio de Ciencias y Technologia, according to Alejandro Hernández, an event coordinator and director of science promotion at the ministry.

He described the government’s role in planning this event as a bridge between schools like the university and science-focused high schools and private organizations like LEGO, which is a Danish firm. This and other events that include other world olympics programs and science fairs are part of a strategy to get more students interested.

“We are the fourth largest producer of technology, and we are having a problem because we don’t have enough engineers to support our growth,” said Hernández. “This youth program is an umbrella to find this talent and guide them to studying engineering.”

Christian Linares, a representative from LEGO who helped coordinate the event, agreed with the notion that Costa Rica needs to train more engineers.

“For every 10 lawyers this only one engineer,” he said. “Costa Rica needs more engineers and less lawyers and professors.”

The event was largely run by dozens of Costa Rica’s next crop of engineers, volunteer students from the university, who were too old to participate, but wanted to be a part of the event.

“I don’t know how they manage it. They’re doing pretty well,” Sergio Brenes, a 21-year-old student at the university, said of the younger teams.

While these volunteers are around to help out the teams, Brenes said that he is not allowed to give as much help as he sometimes would like.

“As an engineer, I get really frustrated when they can’t do it,” he said. “I want to tell them what to do.”

Brenes and fellow industrial engineering student, Sergio Montero, said they preferred to watch the younger students because the parents of younger students generate more excitement in a way that was reminiscent of youth soccer games in the United States.

“Sometimes the parents get more dramatic than the kids themselves,” said Montero. “They want to disqualify the other teams.”

Brenes and Montero picked out the design that one of the older teams built to demonstrate good engineering. In this part of the competition, the robots had to be able to find a specific-colored cube that was hollowed out on the top and bottom, lift it up, carry it to a thin cube of corresponding color and fit the two together like a puzzle.

However, Jimmy Rojas and Michael Varela, both 19-year-old students at the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica, designed their robot to pick up cubes on two sides. Although their robot was not as functional in accomplishing the task, it far outstripped the other robots in speed.

“We used two prongs to pick up the cube,” said Varela of his robot, which functioned more like a fork-lift than the more common practice of using arms. “It’s faster.”

Even so Rojas and Varela’s robot placed fifth in the competition easily getting them into the finals next weekend at the Antigua Aduana. There three teams will be chosen to represent Costa Rica at the World Robotics Olympiad in Malaysia, Nov. 9 to 11. The two younger categories will compete on Saturday, and the older teams will compete on Sunday.

This entry was posted in Costa Rica News. Bookmark the permalink.