Tue 20 Mar 2018

The Robots are coming

The latest innovation for the WITT Taranaki Science and Technology Fair for schools is so new even the teachers might need a hand.

Thousands of hours’ of effort goes into the entries from Taranaki schools and the work goes on show for a couple of days at Pukekura Park before the winners are announced to what in recent years has been a packed audience of students and parents.

Last year judges were faced with almost 1000 entries.

For the 34th event, to be staged in early August, organisers have tapped into the growing popularity overseas of robots, and they think it could start a craze.

Students will be invited to enter mini robots into one of two classes – one which challenges the robot to navigate out of a maze and the other which pits strength in a “sumo” contest.

Robot Wars are so popular overseas that they feature in television series – think WWE professional wrestling with all the excitement, but with robots rather than people in the ring.

A sub-committee comprising Pat Swanson (teacher, Highlands Intermediate), Chris Roux (teacher, New Plymouth Boys' High School), and Michael Fenton (teacher, scientist and consultant, Focus Consultancy) is organising the new competition.

Students at Highlands Intermediate have a convert to the robot craze in teacher Phil Hoskin. He and fellow teacher Pat Swanson are excited at the prospect of students getting the chance to learn about creating robots and adapting their sensors to cope with their environment.

They are looking forward to seeing the sumo robots battle on the awards night – and Phil Hosking plans to line up a smoke machine for atmosphere. A website is also being set up to help the young contenders who enter the maze competition.

Pat Swanson says the competitions will promote innovation and creativity.

Digital Technology expert Michael Fenton says the learning will show students that robots might be able to make a decision 1000 times faster than they can – but that doesn’t mean the decision is the correct one.

This competition will be additionally challenging because the robots will be autonomous, not operated by remote control – so the programming work of the students will be put to the test.

“It is computational thinking – students must learn that making a robot is more than coding, it is determining how it will think and make decisions.”

He says the competition is so new that just as students will be learning as they go, so might their teachers.

New Plymouth Boys High teacher Chris Roux says if teachers are not confident in helping their students, they can call the science fair organisers for help

“We are keen to run workshops too if that will help.”

Kimberley Fenton, who has the role of Cosette in the New Plymouth Operatic Society’s production of Les Miserables, is helping her dad promote the competitions as something that is not just for the boys.

She is familiar with robots, having helped her father create them on a regular basis, and says if she was at school she would definitely enter.

Year Eight Highlands pupil Colwyn Velvin is a likely start for one of the new competitions- he has already been converted to the robot craze and likes the fact that, unlike with computer games, he can make something which is three dimensional.

For more information about the WITT Taranaki Science and Technology Fair go to https://www.facebook.com/taranakisciencefair/ and http://www.focus-consultancy.co.nz/science-fair.html


Pictured: Kimberley Fenton and Colwyn Velvin check out one of the robots off the Highlands Intermediate production line.