In Geneva, Inspiration, Curiosity, and Equity Reigned at the FIRST Global Challenge and the XPRIZE ESG Leadership Summit
It turns out that revolutions do happen in Switzerland, albeit peaceful ones that have the potential to change the world for the better. In this hub where international organizations, global leaders, and diplomats regularly create and deploy missions to benefit humanity, it became increasingly clear that making STEM education more accessible and equitable is critically important for the health and well-being of the planet and all its people.
But this clarity did not come to pass in a noble assembly hall or political office; it happened amid the happy chaos of a global robotics competition in what looked like an Olympic village for nearly 2,000 high school roboticists—as well as their mentors, educators, family members and even dignitaries.
On Thursday, October 13, in Geneva’s Palexpo, 185 teams representing 180 nations gathered to compete at the 2022 FIRST Global Challenge, but hours before the opening ceremony took place, a deceptively diminutive new robot made its global debut. Although the game-changing XRP (Experiential Robotics Platform) robots, developed by Worcester Polytechnic Institute and DEKA Research and Development Corp., are still in beta form, their powerful potential was clear, as was the international demand for them.
“We gave XRP beta kits to every competing team and asked them to share with other schools or organizations in their home country who are looking to implement or expand robotics programs, and within three days we discovered that the need for these kits already surpasses a million robots,” said Joseph Doiron, director of WPI’s new global STEM education initiative, assistant teaching professor in The Global School, and co-director of the Global Lab. “We left Switzerland with a long list of global partners—everyone from grassroots organizers to top officials of various nations and even an ambassador—all of whom see the tremendous potential of the XRPs and the great benefit of having WPI’s guidance and support. Not only that, but we’ve attracted interest from musician and philanthropist Will.I.Am, whose foundation helps transform lives through education.”
The XRP robots have simple, inexpensive, easy-to-build platforms that are just as programmable as far more expensive robots; they also come with built-in educational and software support, are designed to operate autonomously, perform basic tasks, navigate on their own, sense distance, and manipulate their environment. The XRP’s tool-free assembly allows for a quick build, and parts can be replaced easily by a 3-D printer. When they come to market next year, they will measure 7x5 inches, weigh less than one pound—about the size of a box of chocolates—and cost less than $50. With the kits, educators and students also get access to free online courses, created and supported by WPI, on how to build, program, and control the robot, which they can scale up using the same hardware with free software updates.
“Based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback that we’ve received here in Geneva, we know that STEM educators, mentors, and trainers recognize the potential that these XRP kits have for introducing young people to STEM— and to the power it unleashes within them,” said Interim President Winston “Wole” Soboyejo. “The global appeal of the XRP is important because we cannot solve the world’s great problems without a diversity of STEM professionals with different insights and experiences working together. WPI and our long-term partners at DEKA created the XRP to address that critical diversity gap. The XRP will help to address the lack of access to hands-on STEM education opportunities among less-well-off populations, thereby expanding and filling the global STEM education pipeline so that we can spark more imaginations and ignite more flames of curiosity that will help with the important work of addressing global needs.”
The idea for the XRP robots’ stem from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when WPI students abruptly switched to remote learning in spring 2020 and FIRST needed to keep competitive robotics teams working together on various entries. Both WPI and FIRST needed to figure out how to get remote students small, relatively inexpensive robots to work on for hands-on experience. Eventually, WPI incorporated a commercially available robot kit that students could purchase and build at home into its curriculum. A similar version was then used in FIRST robotics competitions—one that was able to use WPILib software, which the WPILib software development team created for FIRST teams in 2009. From there, collaborators from WPI and DEKA created the XRP with support from the NSF through Engineering For Us All (E4USA).
“Unveiling the XRP and sharing them with the teams and their mentors was a validating experience,” said Brad Miller. “A lot of thought and consideration went into creating every aspect of that platform, and what we heard was almost like a collective sigh of relief. This is not like anything else that exists, and you can’t go online to order something similar at this price point. We heard expressions of gratitude, and requests for speed. People were telling us they needed thousands more of these made—and fast, which was only surprising in the sense of magnitude; we knew educators and mentors wanted an affordable, high-quality STEM education tool, but we didn’t realize just how much.”
While the initial XRP robots were produced using 3-D printers, larger scale manufacturing will be needed to meet demand. In the coming weeks, WPI and DEKA will work to finalize details and work through logistics with the goal of producing a large number of XRPs by April 2023 in time for the FIRST Championship.
“This dream is quickly becoming a reality—not just for those of us who have been working to create the XRP, but for the educators and mentors and trainers who understand how effective robotics is for stimulating student interest in science and technology but have not been able to afford the tools and sustainable support to make their programs successful or equitable,” said Miller. “This really is a game changer.”
Of the remaining 400 XRP beta kits yet to be distributed, 300 will go to E4USA and approximately 40 will go to WPI’s Math and Science for Sub Saharan Africa (MS4SSA) initiative. With support from the World Bank, MS4SSA uses modules in Project-Based Learning, K-12 Science and Math, Robotics, 3D Printing, and Materials Science and Engineering to train the trainers who, in turn, train teachers to teach science and mathematics to students in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through this initiative, WPI works collaboratively with stakeholders from 23 African countries and over 150 development partners from around the world to explore global best practices and develop strategies to improve STEM opportunities for students.
During the trip to Switzerland, Soboyejo also joined Dean Kamen, WPI alumnus and founder of FIRST Global and DEKA, for the XPRIZE ESG Leadership Summit along with other global innovators—including CEOs and chief sustainability officers—who are committed to actively working on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues, especially in the areas of climate, energy and biodiversity, and conservation. At this elite two-day gathering, leaders came together to discuss their sustainability efforts, share best practices, learn, and collaborate.
Soboyejo was asked to contribute to this discussion via a fireside chat with Alexander Nicholas, XPRIZE’s EVP of Learning, Innovation & Society, on “Social Sustainability: Making Progress Towards the ‘S’ in ESG.” During that conversation, Soboyejo urged attendees to “Open your mind to see the talent across the world and connect with that talent,” and emphasized that social good is not about pity or guilt, but truly recognizing the potential for valuable contributions from people in every corner of the world.
“The world is full of untapped talent and potential, and the XPRIZE summit was especially inspiring because it was a gathering of creative problem-solvers who are seeking better approaches to making the world better for everyone by engaging everyone,” Soboyejo said. “The XPRIZE’s focus and their challenges are very much aligned with WPI’s values and mission, and the importance that they place on STEM as the pathway to helping address the world’s great problems was a vital reminder of the importance of WPI’s efforts—on campus and globally—to prepare STEM students with the talent, knowledge, and passion that are necessary to positively impact the social, technological, ecological, and economic challenges facing people around the world.”