Global robotics olympiad ranks team Cambodia twelfth out of 65

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The small sensors the team utilised were still able to produce energy to power 20 lights in their prototype building. SUPPLIED

The World Robot Olympiad (WRO) is a global competition dedicated to educating its participants about science and technology. It provides the students – who range in age from 12-19 – an opportunity to develop their creativity and problem-solving skills through a fun and engaging robotics competition.

This year team Energific from E2STEM Education Cambodia represented Cambodia in the WRO International Finale which was held online on November 18-20.

With the guidance of their teacher and coach Rith Oudom the team placed in the Top 12 out of 65 countries participating in the competition, which had the theme “PowerBots - Future of Energy” this year.

Team Energific has just three members – Pun Solita, Ho Chanponleusophea and Keb Sreynaj and their project involved using a piezo sensor to generate electricity through the motion of walking.

“It caught us by surprise to be the winner of the Cambodia round. We thought that other projects were way better than us. When working on our project problems kept coming up that would set us back and we lost a lot of time to that.

“But our attitude was that it is what it is and we’ll keep going and finish what we started. And then the results were announced and everything turned out great and we were super excited,” Solita tells The Post.

“At the International round I think we could probably have done better if we could hear the judges’ questions more clearly. We were well prepared, I think, and we’re proud of the results because they reflect how much work and effort we put into this,” says the 18-year-old.

As their coach, Oudom tells The Post he was excited to see his students’ efforts pay off. He says that he actually spent very little time helping them because the three students on the team are independent minded but capable of working together and solving problems for themselves. They came to him only when they were really struggling or needed him to approve purchases for the project.

Back in 2018, the STEM Education Organisation of Cambodia (STEMEOC) – a non-governmental initiative aiming to help Cambodian youths make informed decisions about pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – became an official partner for the WRO.

“It is a programme that encourages young people to use their robotics skills to solve real world problems that arise from using renewable energy. There were three areas of focus: Energy in your home or community, energy and transportation and energy mixed into your daily life,” Director of STEMEOC Um Chanchamnan says.

After learning that the theme was related to green or clean energy the team started to discuss ways to generate energy that wouldn’t harm the environment that nobody was really focusing on yet.

“To find our energy source we tried to think of what was already producing kinetic force or some kind of pressure on a daily basis. We then came up with footsteps and decided to use that to generate energy. Our inspiration came from a Japanese video where they also used footsteps but they were using a motor whereas we’re using a piezo sensor,” says 17-year-old Sreynaj, who was in charge of engineering the project.

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Energific is a team of three Cambodian teenagers aged 17-18: (From left to right) Ho Chanponleusophea, Pun Solita and Keb Sreynaj. SUPPLIED

Chanponleusophea, also 17, says they spent about three weeks building the robot, which succeeded in producing energy but the amount was quite small and could light about 20 of the lights on the model building they were using for demonstrations.

After winning the national round, however, they had two weeks before they had to submit their project for the international round so they tried to upgrade it and increase its functionality.

“For now we can generate electricity when we step or press on the sensor but in the future we want to be able to store up the energy we generate in batteries or accumulators like solar power does so that we can use it anytime,” says Chanponleusophea.

The benefit of the method for generating energy that they came up with is that it’s environmentally sustainable and doesn’t use any natural resources – just one cheap sensor allows it to generate energy any time and any place.

Solita says the biggest challenge they’ve faced so far was coding for the sensor to get it to work right and she spent so many hours working on that aspect of the project that she started to dream about it at night.

Oudom says his students’ strength is in their ability to collaborate, their creative problem solving and their polished presentation skills.

“They asked the media team at school to help them and they work closely with me and updated me on their progress regularly. They were able to solve problems really fast. Their presentation hit the spot because it used simple language that everyone could understand.

“And their creativity is undeniable because they were able to design and build this interesting project,” Oudom says.

Oudom says that in order to improve on their results they would need to research advanced electronics further to make their sensors more effective and figure out a way to store the energy they’re producing in batteries.

Chamnan says the projects submitted this year were all very impressive and the student teams were incorporating creative ideas that addressed challenges faced in their communities relating to electricity or energy.

“We saw a heavy focus on helping rural communities with things like solar powered chargers for devices to help students study online, crossing busy roads safely, along with solutions for energy efficiency to save money and reduce the impact on the environment, in addition to the winning project involving generation of electricity from footsteps,” he says.

Som Tola, coach of the Juniper programme and the event planner for the WRO Cambodia tournament, tells The Post that many of the students gained their skills in this area during the recent British embassy funded online robotics program “Robots - Future of Energy “ which took place from July to September 2021.

Tola says the training went smoothly because of corporate support and the work of the STEM team – especially their former director Una McCarthy-Fakhry, who played an important role guiding the teams and tirelessly working to organise the event.

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The team was surprised when they won the national contest and thrilled when they placed so highly at the international competition. SUPPLIED

“We also want to thank our training partner GENESIS Cambodia who helped us with Arduino/C++ programming training, Clean Energy Lab for teaching us about clean energy and IPAC Cambodia for teaching us about intellectual property in the technology field.

“After running the programme for about four months, I can see how significant it is in encouraging students who are keen to explore and level up their tech knowledge. Even though the tournament is finished some of the participants are working on other projects together and have started a coding club to share what they’ve learned with others,” Tola says.

The trio of students on team Energific say that they’ve learned a lot from the tournament – not just about technology, but also virtues like discipline, patience, responsibility and time management – especially since they are in grade 12 and have been studying for their upcoming exam.

“The tournament really forced me to think outside the box and be creative with the video I made for the presentation since I was the person responsible for that and I didn’t want to let the team down,” says Chanponleusophea.

Sreynaj encourages all students with an interest in STEM to give WRO a shot – especially girls. She says that before joining the team she didn’t know that much about science or technology, but she had two good friends in Chanponleusophea and Solita who motivated her to educate herself more on those topics.

“I also learned to express my opinions, which is something new for me. If I hadn’t joined the team I wouldn’t have had any reason to really think about what my strengths or weaknesses are but now I feel like I know myself better and I know what I should work on,” she says.

As director of STEMEOC, Chamnan is responsible for leading things into the future and finding more opportunities for everyone involved and he’s eager to get going.

“Our message to all Cambodians is that STEM is in our genes and in our very blood. STEMEOC will be trying our best to unlock that potential in our people. As a non-political Cambodian non-profit organisation we are happy to collaborate with anyone to enable or bring modern and advanced technologies to Cambodia,” Chamnan says.

For more info on STEMEOC visit their Facebook page: @STEMCambodia