Operation Santa Claus

Building robots gets Hong Kong pupils excited about science, technology and teamwork

An underwater robot competition brought together 300 pupils of different ethnicities from the city’s mainstream and special needs schools

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 11:52am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 10:49pm

What does it take to build a robot that can walk underwater and stack boxes?

“iSTEAM!” Yang Chi-cheung, 12, and four schoolmates, announced in chorus, their faces beaming with delight.

iSTEAM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), arts (A), and inclusion (I) – which was the focus of the Underwater Robot Competition 2017, an event held in April and hosted by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Why Hong Kong children have fallen behind in science race, and the volunteers pushing them to catch up

Operation Santa Claus, an annual charity campaign jointly organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK, supported the event with a donation.

The challenge aimed to bring together pupils from different ethnic backgrounds, studying in mainstream and special needs schools, to feel inspired and find their creative streak through hands-on experience in robotics and engineering. A total of 300 pupils from 42 primary and secondary schools signed up for the event.

Participants spent three days assembling their robots from loose components and later manoeuvred them to accomplish a series of tasks in a swimming pool.

The competition had two parts, one of which saw each school pilot their own robot to do things to score points, such as collecting, moving and building items.

The second part required three schools to make their robots work together. Schools that showed the best teamwork in the second part were awarded the Best Joint School Inclusion Award.

Yang’s team from SAHK B M Kotewall Memorial School in Kwai Chung snapped up the Achievement Level Bronze, Best Teamwork Award and Best Joint School Inclusion Award.

The Form One pupil and his peers at the special education needs (SEN) institution were guided by teachers Ricky Cheng Man-fai and Cheung Ching-yan.

Yang, the team leader, said:“ I would tell team members to loosen up at some critical moments.”

Luk Ching-yan, the 11-year-old “chief of staff”, said: “I worked out our strategy and the robot’s moves.”

“I screwed the robot’s parts together,” Cheung Tsz-kwan, 13, chimed in. When asked how many screws he had tightened, he said: “Four!”

Robot designer Tin Tsz-chun, 13, said: “I piloted the robot [by remote control].”

Lam Hoi-kiu, the only girl in the team, paused before detailing her various responsibilities: “I cheered my team on. I was tasked with ensuring our robot got a stable power supply.”

Extra funds help Hong Kong schools cater to pupils with special needs

The 15-year-old added that the competition held special meaning for her as the last day of the event coincided with her grandmother’s birthday.

All five pupils said they liked science subjects and wanted to participate in more competitions.

“I like team work. We may be unable to see each other very often, but we got to know more about each other by forming a team to join a competition,” Yang said.

Cheung, who instructed the team, said the five encountered more difficulties than mainstream school students did in the competition, citing the lack of accessible facilities at the venue for handicapped pupils.

“Yet the team showed great perseverance in the face of challenges,” the teacher said, adding that it was important for the students to know what social inclusion meant.

“[The SEN students] are weak at collaborating with others, but they have good memories. They are good at assembling things,” Cheng said.

School principal Zoe Lai Wan-yim said their students enjoyed taking part in competitions.

“Winning is not an important goal. It’s important that they develop self-confidence and self-determination,” she said.