September 22, 2023

Auckland home-schoolers shine in robot competition

Auckland home-schoolers shine in robot competition

4:00AM Saturday May 09, 2009
By Isaac Davison

Team members competing in Texas included (from left) Max Waller, 14, Ethan Harrold, 13, and Kane Ross, 16. Photo / Supplied

Team members competing in Texas included (from left) Max Waller, 14, Ethan Harrold, 13, and Kane Ross, 16. Photo / Supplied

A group of Auckland youths have given the favourites a fright in a world robotics competition.

Six representatives of Free Range Robotics – a group made up of home-schooled youngsters from 14 Auckland households – dazzled international competitors and Nasa scouts in reaching the semifinals of the Vex Robotics World Championships in Dallas, Texas.

The six were ranked first in the competition for programming and third for driver skills, leading more than 260 schools from around the world that had won their respective regional and national titles.

Massey University lecturer Johan Potgieter, who mentored the team, said he was not surprised by their success. The more open-minded curriculum of home schooling was an ideal breeding ground for robot-builders.

“Many of these kids have never sat an exam in their life … They have a very structured learning programme during the day, but it is obviously much easier for parents to integrate robotics because they are not following a set curriculum.

“There is a bit more flexibility to think outside the square … They can teach robotics in business terms, they can do projects on fundraising, on constructing … What they are doing is not under the strict guidelines of the [Ministry of Education].”

Dr Potgieter said the driver skills award was especially significant, as the diminutive Free Range Robotics driver, Ethan Harrold, was just 13 years old. “He was so small he could almost not see over the field …”

In Dallas, teams made up of six pupils had to modify and programme their remote-controlled robots, and on a playing field resembling a small boxing ring they had to race to place 7.5cm cubes into goals.

Free Range Robotics supervisor Craig Paul said they were finally eliminated by an experienced and aggressive American high school.

“They knew to study us and programmed their robot specifically to face us. It was almost like robot wars, smashing into us and perhaps pushing the boundaries a little.”

New Zealand teams dominated the championship. Onehunga High School team “Symbiohsis” also reached the semifinals, and Dr Potgieter’s Massey team were crowned best university ahead of top American colleges.

“The American community was impressed with New Zealand teams. We were the favourites … Whatever we did, the crowd just loved us.

“If you look at the number of teams and what we won – we cleaned up.”

He put the success down to intensive robotics workshops at weekends and allowing more “play-time” as opposed to strict theory. They also had the advantage of being unknown in the competition, and a laidback approach to problem-solving.

“We were gracious in defeat … but we didn’t have to be gracious very often because we almost never lost.”