Robotics team from Worcester, South Africa, finds a home away from home at WPI
When nine high school students boarded a flight this month, their destination was far away, but had a familiar name: Worcester. The teens are on a robotics team from Worcester, South Africa, that came to WPI to compete in one of the largest robotics competitions the campus has ever hosted.
The team, the Galactic Einsteins from Zwelethemba High School in Worcester, South Africa, was among more than 1,000 young people who participated in the first-ever WPI Annual FIRST LEGO League Event, held at Harrington Auditorium June 9-11. The 9-to-18-year-old participants represented nearly three dozen states and more than a dozen countries.
This was “certainly the most far-reaching of the competitions that we’ve run,” said Colleen Shaver, director of the Robotics Resource Center, which runs five to six robotics tournaments each year on campus for youth teams.
For the Galactic Einsteins, the competition was just the start of their experience at WPI and, for some, it was their first trip outside of South Africa.
After the competition, the Galactic Einsteins and their advisors spent over a week on campus to experience college life. They lodged in Messenger Hall, attended lectures about robotics, got lessons on engineering and Java programming, and operated the robots developed by the joint robotics team of WPI and The Massachusetts Academy of Math & Science at WPI.
Galactic Einsteins team member Lilitha Siyo, 16, said, “We learned about the different motors in robots, and how to make a robot go faster. We’ve been learning how to build a robot that can do missions.” The team plans to use the lessons it learned from WPI professors, students, and fellow roboticists on campus to improve its own robots.
Khuselo Jini, 17, said the time studying robotics will “help us to be familiar with the 21st century generation of building machines to do jobs. I could see robots helping in people’s lives.” Siyo and Jini both said they plan to pursue careers in engineering or technology.
The students are led by their math and robotics teacher, Kuda Takawira, who helped start the team, which also teaches robotics to students in other schools in South Africa. For the teens—who are also working on a research project to develop an electricity management and distribution system—the trip presented an opportunity to get feedback from WPI engineering faculty and students on their concept. They plan to use the input they received to develop a working prototype of a product they hope will reduce the risk of fires, complicated repairs, and electricity theft in their home country. “By the time they go back to Worcester [South Africa], they’ll be completely transformed because these are opportunities they would never have found in their lifetime,” Takawira said of the experience on campus. “Coming here to WPI has been a blessing. We hope to go back with our brains filled, so that we can make a difference.”
During their time in Worcester, the students presented their robots and electrical system design proposal to faculty, staff, and students. They met with WPI Provost and Senior Vice President Winston (Wole) Soboyejo who encouraged the teens to push forward with their efforts. “When you come from a challenging environment, it gives you a very strong attitude,” Soboyejo said, “and a strong motivation to work hard and to work on challenges, and that’s an asset.”
For Siyo, the visit to WPI was an asset. She said she was energized and excited to be on campus with her “best friends,” surrounded by WPI faculty, staff, and robotics teams from around the world. She said the learning experience at WPI is one example of how robotics has created new opportunities for her and her teammates. “You get to experience things that you have never experienced before. Robotics broadens your mind to think outside the box.” She said that type of thinking leads to solutions. For the Galactic Einsteins, the goal is to find ways to make the world a better place.