Filipino techno kids gear up for the 17th Philippine Robotics Olympiad
By Malou E. Rosal, Contributor
Photos from Philippine Robotics Olympiad Facebook page
Last year, while the rest of the mainstream population was clueless, Filipino kids celebrated an exceptional victory when they won the silver medal in the elementary level at the World Robotics Olympiad held in Costa Rica. Their winning entry was a robot that utilizes eggshells to make chalk. With over four million tons of eggshells thrown out annually in the country, imagine how much chalk this robot can make.
In another robotics competition, this time in Houston, Texas, the Filipino team also won an award for edible drinking bottles. Made of water but with the addition of a particular solution, this bottle also tastes like, well, water. Imagine that – a container from which to drink water; then when the water has been consumed, the bottle can be eaten too. Nothing to discard and potentially harm marine life in the ocean.
Coming from such significant achievements, it is with great excitement and anticipation that an estimated 800 public and private schools nationwide are preparing for the Philippine Robotics Olympiad (PRO), “an annual science educational event that primarily aims to challenge the intellectual skills and critical thinking of elementary and high school students.” Now on its 17th year, PRO’s theme for 2018 is “Food Matters.” The grand awardees of this competition will represent the country in the World Robot Olympiad 2018 to be held on November 15-19, 2018 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Once there, the Philippine team will compete with 57 countries from around the world.
Mylene Abiva, national organizer of the Philippine Robotics Olympiad, shares that in her close to two decades of involvement in this field, she has seen how this interdisciplinary branch of engineering and science has grown and evolved in local schools.
“We have an inherent characteristic of creativity in each and every Filipino,” she says, “and I have observed that in our students in the past 18 years I’ve been doing robotics. Not only are we creative, we are resilient and resourceful. I think that’s the typical Filipino attribute that we have.”
Abiva recalls that when she first started, the Philippines was the only developing country competing in the World Robot Olympiad. Pitted against big countries like China and Japan, the Filipino kids had already won the silver even on the first year. She shares, “I myself got surprised why we were able to win that. The reason was because our students have fun. Other than being good technically, they are not too serious.”
On her first Robot Olympiad, Abiva was in for a culture shock. She observed how some teachers from other countries were shouting at their teams. On the other hand, the Philippine team was cheerful and cool, enjoying themselves. They had fun, but they gave their best. And they won the silver.
“I think that’s the key when teaching soft skills and critical thinking to children,” Abiva explains. “It’s that you cannot force the child to learn and find solutions. They have to enjoy and to see the process and they will be able to flourish more than when teachers are being very strict. That’s why I also advocate inquiry-based learning.”
Champion of the geeks
Abiva’s foray into robotics was actually quite accidental. Being the president/CEO of Felta Multi-Media, Inc., her area of specialization is education. And in such capacity, she would scour the globe to source “relevant and world-class educational materials” and current technologies. It was on one of those exploratory trips that she chanced upon an exhibition of moving Lego creations. She was fascinated, seeing robotics for the first time beyond industrial applications. Curious, she asked the exhibitors if they had Philippine representation. Apparently, there was none. They asked her if she wanted to start the robotics program in the country. She was hesitant at first. After all, she admits that all she knew about robots was Voltes V, which she watched on TV. At that time (1999), no one in the Philippines was engaged in robotics from the basic education perspective.
Abiva continues: “Eventually when it was offered, I told them, the only way is for us to train the teachers who will be our champions, who will train the students, and so on. So, it became a snowball effect. From eight schools, now we have over 900 schools and that number is increasing because of our partnership with the Department of Education.”
At the beginning, of course, the teachers were a bit hesitant, intimidated by this new way of teaching. But Abiva and her team made it fun and easier to understand. They presented robotics as “a way for them to extend their knowledge about science and physics.” She shared with them her own difficult experience of physics in high school. But in the process of learning robotics, the student can learn torque, or gears, or momentum, or distance, and other physics principles. She says, “And I’m not an engineer, not even an educator but I saw the smiles on the faces of the students. And I said, that’s priceless.”
A robotics future
As the Philippines does not yet have a sizeable robotics industry, the career path for students in this field may take certain detours. Mylene suggests venturing into medicine, because of the nanotechnology involved; education or teaching; electrical engineering with mechatronics and other related engineering courses. She continues: “What they learn is really more on the programming side. We use C++ language; that is the same language used for apps and software development. We also teach them engineering skills, how to build, because all the parts are the same but you will see that one robot is different, performing better than the other robot. All the robots are autonomous, there’s no remote control. So that’s why the programmer and the builder have to be able to work together. We teach teamwork.”
Meantime, while a future in robotics is a not-so-distant dream, Abiva would like to scale to other areas in the country. She says that robotics education is now very strong in Visayas. In the next year or two, she’d like to reach out to more schools in Mindanao. Likewise, she wants inclusive robotics as well for special children, like those who are hearing impaired, or even those with autism.
“I believe in robotics for all,” Abiva affirms. “I believe that robotics is not for smart kids alone. It’s for kids who are very curious. Because a lot of people think, oh it’s only for the smart kids. No. It’s for everyone; and the only skill that’s needed is because you want to solve something.”
The 17th Philippine Robotics Olympiad is supported by Intel Education, Asia Pacific Colleges, Inteco Isuzu dealerships, Astrotel, Fishermall, Microsoft, OMIZU Water, De La Salle Lipa, Batangas (venue for dry-run), Atene de Manila University (venue for Teacher’s Training), and iCreate Café Manila.
Those interested in joining the 17th Philippine Robotics Olympiad must fill-up the registration form and submit this together with a photocopy of Authenticated Birth Certificate to the National Secretariat on or before August 15, 2018. To access the registration form, visit www.felta.ph. For more information, call Coni Peralta or Donna Ermitanio at tel. no. 912-1397 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.