It's robots vs. robots at Asia-Pacific tech challenge for high schoolers

A group of Greater Victoria high school students is ­competing with teams from around the world in the Asia-Pacific FIRST Tech Challenge ­Championships, a robotics competition for ­students in Grades 7 to 12.

The FIX IT Robotics team is made up of seven students from high schools in the region, competing by video link from the Vancouver Island Technology Park on the time schedule for Australia, where the competition is based.

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The group has designed, constructed and programmed a robot — roughly the size of a microwave oven — using a kit of parts.

The students’ challenge is to manipulate the robot in a ­sophisticated field game — in this tournament, competitors must program their robot to shoot rings at targets — against opposing teams and their robots.

While the competition involves robots, students learn a lot more along the way, such as time management and how to work together as a team, said Michelle Nicholls, one of two coaches for the team.

“Students get to create ­science and technology for tomorrow while having a ton of fun at the same time.

“My job is to try to find resources for them. Their job is to learn.”

Team members also serve as mentors to emerging teams. In the past few years, they have shared their experience and know-how with teams from ­Cameroon and Ivory Coast.

Nicholls said she got involved in the program 15 years ago when her then nine-year-old daughter expressed an ­interest in the First Robotics Lego League, which is geared toward children in Grades 4 to 8.

Finding there were no teams, she started her own.

“It was a fun activity for a group of girls,” said Nicholls, who is semi-retired from the health information science field. “What they realized was that ­science and technology [as a career path] was a possibility.”

Her daughter, Kath, is now in her fourth year studying engineering at the University of Victoria.

About 30 teams from around the world ­are competing in the Asia-Pacific FIRST Tech Challenge Championships via video link.

The tournament started Thursday and runs until today.

The FIX IT Robotics team has its robot set up in the conference room at the Vancouver Island Technology Park.

The team’s lead programmer is Ines Khouinder, 18, who just graduated from St. Margaret’s School. She assumed the position when she was in Grade 10 after her predecessor graduated from Grade 12.

Although she knew that STEM — Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics — was a male-dominated field, Khouinder said she was determined to join. She had become interested in computer programming after a summer program in Grade 9.

While entering international competitions gives the team global experience, “it’s not just about building robots,” she said.

“It’s also about building ­connections.”

In the fall, Khouinder is ­heading to Columbia ­University in New York City to study ­computer science. She is ­especially interested in artificial intelligence.

This will be her last ­competition, since she is leaving high school, and she’s happy to have had the opportunity to be involved. “It had a hand in shaping who I am.”

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