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  • Writer's pictureSue Frame

JE's Robotics Team Headed to the World Robot Olympiad!

Jakmel Ekspresyon (JE) is proud to announce that representatives of our youth robotics team are headed to this year’s World Robot Olympiad in Panama! We are a nonprofit arts and technology continuing education center in Jacmel, Haiti, partnering with Cultural Capital Haiti to create bright futures for Jacmel’s youth through our Creative Coding Project.

It’s been a long journey to get where we are today. About six years ago, we were hearing from our students that many schools don’t have computer labs, and the schools that do have computer labs don’t have electricity to run them during the day because the local power plant was only providing current for a few hours each evening. (For the past several months there has been no public electricity in Jacmel at all.) So those kids were learning computers in theory, without ever touching computers. We made it one of our missions to fix this.

We formed a regional partnership with a group called Haiti Tech, a technology association in Jacmel, to teach a robotics club for youth aged 12 to 19. We got access to a handful of laptops and started by helping our students develop basic coding skills. We started with Scratch, which is a “block coding” or “visual coding” interface. This is a proven method for getting young people started with coding, because they can see results before actually having to learn coding languages. They started making videos and games with it. Then we moved into Arduino, which is an actual programming language for doing robotics, dealing with inputs and outputs.

Around the same time, we started talking to the organization Haiti STEM Alliance, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. (We like to call it STEAM, adding an “A” for Art, because art is crucial for creative problem solving.) Five years later, one of our original Robo Club students is actually now the coach. She has been teaching kids age 8 through 12 about coding through another platform called PictoBlox. That platform allows us to upload programs the kids have built to Arduino, so we can skip the coding language for right now, since they’re so young.

We created a team called Technology Club (in Creole, Klèb Teknoloji), and started going to nation-wide competitions organized by STEM Haiti. Our kids were amazing and really did a great job. It’s been a huge success, so we’re hoping to expand that this next year into another age bracket.

This past summer, we held a science and technology summer camp for that 8 to 12 age bracket. We did a lot of cardboard projects to teach them about engineering, and worked with them on Scratch and PictoBlox. Ten of those students were chosen to concentrate specifically on block coding for robotics. Of those kids, we picked five who were the most motivated to advance into a team for the national World Robot Olympiad competition.

The coordinator for Haiti STEM Alliance, Raygine Francois, has been working hard this year to get Haiti into the World Robot Olympiad for the first time. She set up a national competition in Coteaux to select which team would go to the global competition representing Haiti. The kids were amazing. They spent six weeks building a robot. The World Robot Olympiad has a theme every year and this year’s theme is shipping logistics. So the team decided to make a fire-fighting robot for boats that takes seawater and, with a temperature sensor, senses that there is a fire, and then the robot puts out that fire with seawater.

Of course what they built was just a prototype, so they built it out of cardboard. The JE staff helped on the mechanical side. We sourced a fuel pump and some tubing, and helped the kids put it all together in the robot, but the kids did all of the block coding to make it work. The coding uses an Arduino, a relay, and a temperature sensor to activate the pump to spray water. The kids worked amazingly as a team, and truly realized their robot project.

When we arrived at the competition, we found that ours was the only team that had brought a working robot. You can imagine the kind of challenges kids need to overcome to be able to pull something like that off in Haiti today. When we talked to the coordinator, we had no way of knowing that we’d have such motivated students who would actually have a robot to take to the global competition. Instead we were focused on creating a great experience for them in coding, so that next year we would have a foundation to have a team that really pushes hard. But it turned out that the kids really surprised us by setting and reaching their own goals. The day before leaving for the completion, those kids worked for seven hours straight. These are 8-to-12-year olds. That is a feat in and of itself for them to be focused for that long. When they arrived at Coteaux, they stayed up until 10pm on the eve of the competition to ensure that the temperature sensor was working with the relay. It was absolutely amazing to see how dedicated they were.

So of course we won, and we now have the chance to go to the World Robot Olympiad, which is being held this year in Panama on November 7th.

Unfortunately we were working on a tight schedule, and have found out that the Haitian office responsible for issuing passports won’t be able to process new applications in time for all of our students to attend. This is a real disappointment but we aren’t letting it get us down. We have one team member with a passport, and the coach has a passport. So those two will be getting us in the door at the global competition, seeing what it’s like, and being able to inform us so that we’ll be even more prepared next year. But until then we need to raise funds for the travel and hotel costs for the two of them, and hopefully raise additional funds so that we can begin the passport process for the rest of our students, so that next year we’ll be able to send them abroad to compete.

For this year’s World Robot Olympiad, we’re looking at $650 for the entrance fee, hotel and food for each of our two representatives, and $900 each for the airfare. Normally the price is $350 for the entrance and hotel, but because Haiti doesn’t have regular flights to

Panama, we have to go early and subsidize those extra two days for our team members. The Haiti STEM Alliance is paying for our visas, but we’ll need to cover the rest. So that’s $1550 per person, or $3100 in total for the trip to Panama. Anything we can raise above this amount would go toward getting us prepared to send a complete team next year. We really want to give them this amazing experience that the vast majority of Haitian kids just don’t get.

Additionally, we have just received a 3D printer, which means that next year we’re not only going to be doing coding for robotics but also 3D design and printing. So when we go to compete in 2024, we plan on having something truly fantastic to show.

We really see digital competencies as being a powerful skill that helps people get jobs. By starting with these kids at such a young age, we are playing the long game in setting them up for success. Next year we will be looking to open up an additional robotics club for the 13 to 16 age group. After that, we will be building toward our ultimate goal of having a real, professional-level two-year coding bootcamp for adults. So that the students we’ve been raising up through our programs will end up with the professional skills to go out and find a job.

For these kids, I believe that learning in a joyful environment really motivates them. Doing problem solving in a creative way helps them with their neural plasticity, which is crucial when they’re facing a deficit of education, and an educational system –– when they can access it –– that emphasizes memorization rather than problem-solving or critical thinking. The kind of joyful learning experience that we offer is not just building professional competencies. It’s actually building cognitive skills that will give our students an advantage in anything they choose to do in life. This is really the core of JE’s mission.

I ask you to join us in supporting the youth of Jacmel by making a donation.

––Sue Frame

Director, Jakmel Ekspresyon


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