Youth build, program robots to solve disaster problems in competition

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WATERLOO — When another tsunami strikes somewhere in the world, people will be glad to have three young women from Cambridge on their side, potentially coming up with engineering solutions.


The three 14-year-olds, Kennedy Barkhouse, Kesha Patel and Sana Ahmad, from the Preston and St. Benedict high schools in Cambridge, were among 400 youth who solved tsunami and other natural disaster rescue missions using robots they programmed for the Western Ontario For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Lego League championships that took place at the University of Waterloo on Saturday.


“We programmed many missions. One of them was Mission Tsunami, where we have an arm attachment that goes up and down and sets off a lever,” Ahmad explained.


The young women formed a Canadian Association of Girls in Science team that was coached by University of Waterloo engineering student Farzi Yusufali.


“This was a new thing we tried out this year,” Yusufali said of the association’s decision to put together a girl’s team for the Lego competition.


There were a number of competitions leading up to the Western Ontario challenge, so these young women did very well to get that far, she added.


Their designs included a box-carrying attachment, an attachment for bringing an airplane down safely, and a plow attachment that could push an ambulance.


Each mission was played out on a “field” that consisted of a mat on a table set up for various natural disasters for which they had to create robotic solutions.


The event took place in a “fun” and competitive atmosphere, in a gym with blaring music, as the judges checked out robots programmed over the course of 12 weeks using a simple programming language that children could learn.


Maud Gorbet, a systems design engineering faculty member at the University of Waterloo, said the youth, ranging from nine to 14 years of age, came up with impressive designs.


“Although they all have the same mission, the robots are different and they are all doing really amazing things,” Gorbet said.


The youth thought up their own unique solutions and did the programming by themselves, she added. “They are being engineers in training, solving problems and designing new solutions so they can help communities,” Gorbet said.


She added that the youth need to also do research into various natural disasters in order to think about the problems and come up with solutions.


The missions tasked the students to solve rescue mission problems might arise in volcanic eruptions, flooding, earthquakes and tornadoes as well as tsunamis. Using Lego attachments and the pieces in a kit, they build robots that can lift or push people to safety zones, she said.


Gorbet said the students got points not only for their designs and solutions, but also for their “core values” and ability to professionally work together.


There were 42 teams competing from all over western Ontario in this competition. The overall provincial winners will get a chance to go to the FIRST Lego League World Championship which takes place in the United States, she said.


Although the three young women from Cambridge are not yet sure if engineering is what they will end up doing later in life, the competition gave them a taste of the excitement and rewards that the career can offer.


“It was a lot of fun. It was hard work, but we made it fun,” Barkhouse said.


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