Encouraging & empowering

Five St. Augustine’s College (SAC) students were exposed to how transformative STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) can be in a changing world through their participation in the FIRST Global Challenge, which seeks to encourage and empower youth with a passion for the subjects, develop their skills and equip them with the tools necessary to contribute to shaping the future.

Ninth grade student Zyontae Adderley, 10th grade student Jee’von Pratt, 11th grade student Abria Smith and 12th grade students Nadege Charlton and Matthew Gittens, members of SAC’s Google CS Club, participated in the recent Dubai Challenge, which aims to address the world’s most critical environmental issues such as wastage of water and energy, sustainability and pollution through a global robotics competition.

The Big Red Machine team encountered its fair share of challenges and did not fare as well in the competition as they had anticipated after receiving their robotic kit at the ninth hour; that meant the students only had a week to prepare and construct the robot going into competition, then having to work with other teams from around the world who in some instances faced problems with their own robot, which in turn hindered the SAC team’s overall performance because they had to rely on each other.

“Though we faced challenges with building the robot, we were able to apply critical thinking skills and teamwork that we acquired in the Google CS Club,” said Gittens, club president.

Dauran McNeil, club moderator and computer studies teacher, said the competition allowed team members to think critically as a global citizen as well as how to communicate and collaborate with others.

Smith said completing challenges involved teamwork.

“At one point, our robot wasn’t balanced, so it toppled over in our practice challenge. Teams from Guyana, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands helped us. We also helped Jamaica with programming their robot,” said Smith.

McNeil had previously led a SAC squad to the Washington FIRST Global Robot Olympics in 2017, where their robot named Choo Choo showed a strong 64th place performance in a 163-strong field from 157 nations and six continental representatives; they then put Choo Choo to the test in competition at the World Adolescent Robotics Competition (WARC) 2018 in Guiyang City, Guizhou Province, China. SAC’s team ranked 11th out of 30 at the competition.

“Our team was comprised of novices this year. None of the students had the exposure or had competed in a robotics competition, compared to the groups that would have went in the past. In addition to that, a lot of the students didn’t have much experience in STEM, and we received our robotic kit at the last minute, so the students only had a week to prepare and construct the robot; so that really hindered our performance. Also, because the competition encourages collaboration, we were tasked with working with other teams from all over the world, which hindered our overall performance because we had to rely on them in a sense. Regretfully, we were teamed up with other countries whose robot faced a lot of challenges—their robot didn’t work or couldn’t complete the task which was to take particles and make reservoir deposits, so we didn’t win—but our team was able to achieve most of the objectives. We just didn’t have the assistance of the other teams as much as I would have liked,” said McNeil.

“Being a part of this robotics competition allowed these students, some of whom are shy, to open up and collaborate with others because they were forced to communicate and work together with other students from around the world,” he said.

“Overall, the experience was amazing because just moving around the room allowed us to interact with people from all around the world,” said Smith.

Organized by the Dubai Future Foundation under the theme “Ocean Opportunities”, the FIRST Global Challenge focused on developing robots to clean up the millions of tons of pollutants in the oceans produced mainly by factories, mismanaged sewage systems and marine activities, which adversely affect marine life and the environment.

McNeil said hosting the competition in Dubai was fitting owing to the technological advancement of the city.

“I think it inspired the students and allowed them to see what the future holds in terms of how STEM is going to contribute to further development of countries. Students need to see that type of real-world experience,” said the computer studies teacher.

Shauna Kay Arthurs, who also teaches computers, said the challenge was a good opportunity for them to expose the students to robotics and computer science, especially as it is not offered in the school’s curriculum.

“Our students are very dedicated because this is an after-school program, and they sacrificed in order to be a part of this program,” she said.

Teams featured in the recent FIRST Global Challenge were selected based on their results in a year-round series of qualifying events held around the world. The teams are made up of four to five students between 14 and 18 years of age. Each team receives a robotic kit and is tasked with assembling a robot able to address various issues related to ocean and marine life.

“The one thing I want them to take away is understand how transformative STEM can be in changing the world,” said McNeil. “It’s empowering them through robotics and STEM; you’re able to change the way we live. Students get to realize there are so many things they can solve, so many problems we’re facing as a world and country that they will be able to solve. They can begin to think critically and as a global citizen, and how to communicate and collaborate with others.

“What’s most important, they gained a lot of exposure to STEM; it allowed them to grow individually. In particular, one student, Jee’Von Pratt, spoke to me of his interest in becoming a robotics engineer. Prior to going, he had no experience with robotics engineering and STEM, and then to see him after we returned from the trip, he was still interested. He asked me if he could still work on the robot, take it home and make changes to it. To see that transformation within a student is something you can’t pay for.”

McNeil said witnessing students collaborate with other teams was also a sight to behold as they learnt about different techniques, building skills in terms of engineering and how to make alterations to issues.

“I was glad to see the growth in the students, because most of these students didn’t have experience with constructing or breaking down a robot. To see what they were able to do by the end of the competition was phenomenal,” said McNeil. “It was an invaluable experience. It’s those small accomplishments that I was glad to see.”

Challenges of this nature provide more than a learning experience for the students. Previously, McNeil had spoken about his takeaway, which he said involved the integration of STEM and robotics in countries around the world and the fact that The Bahamas lagged behind and had some catching up to do in the education system.

“After this experience and understanding what other countries are doing with robotics, I have the desire to see our own robotics competition in The Bahamas,” he said after the Dubai competition.

McNeil was disappointed the students weren’t able to explore more of the city during their time there owing to the tight schedule. With the little free time they had at their disposal, the computer studies teachers ensured the students got the opportunity to venture into the desert where they got to experience a camel ride, take in the Dubai Mall, which is one of the world’s largest, and take in a water show.

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Shavaughn Moss

Shavaughn Moss joined The Nassau Guardian as a sports reporter in 1989. She was later promoted to sports editor. Shavaughn covered every major athletic championship from the CARIFTA to Central American and Caribbean Championships through to World Championships and Olympics. Shavaughn was appointed as the Lifestyles Editor a few years later.

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