Students from the Shanghai Huangpu Teenagers Science and Technology Activity Center team at the VEX Robotics Competition 2013 in California Photo: Courtesy of Wan Xiaobin
These robots are not the Hollywood variety. They actually can fight fires, play football, pick up items and carry them to where they are instructed. They are made, not of solid iron and flashing lights, but of small electric motors, wheels, gears, electronic motherboards, plastic and metal. They are so good that they take part in international competitions. And these are made and designed by robot-fixated Shanghai school students.
Some of the students and their robots form the Shanghai Huangpu Teenagers Science and Technology Activity Center team which has just won the VEX Robotics Competition (VRC) 2013 in California. The team's robots beat 700 of the world's best student VEX team robots and this was the third time they have taken the first prize.
Hoping to replicate their success is a team of students from the Shanghai Xingzhi Senior High School, which is heading to the Netherlands in June to attend the international RoboCup Junior (RCJ) competition for the third time. These students and their robots have already been placed second in this contest twice. Both teams have had to survive heated contests in China to make it to the international finals.
The Shanghai Huangpu Teenagers Science and Technology Activity Center offers free classes in robotics to students in the district. Although 50 or so students apply for the course every year, only one or two with superior electronics or mechanical knowledge will get into the advanced class and be in line to join one of the competing teams.
This year the competing teams had to design and build robots capable of playing a special robot game called Sack Attack. The robots are remotely controlled by team members and have to collect a series of objects from one section of the 12-square-meter playing area and place them in the right containers. They can also try to interfere with their opponents' robots at the same time.
Pony-tailed 12-year-old Huang Yuchen is a student from Shanghai Datong High School. She knows exactly what she wants to do with her spare time - work with robots. She has been obsessed with robots since she first saw a robot on television. "When I was a fifth grader I came to the center to do extracurricular activities and I immediately selected the robotics course."
Most of these courses are divided into subjects like constructing automated robots that work by themselves or designing robots that work through remote control. She started in one class but quickly asked to be moved to the VEX program course. "The automated robots classes were boring because junior high school students like me could not do all of the programming and much of the work was actually done by the teachers. But in the remote-controlled robot classes, we have to assemble the components and control the robot's movements. It's really amazing to see the different bits and pieces we put together become a robot that can pick up objects and take them to wherever we want it to."
The students at the Shanghai Xingzhi Senior High School play an even larger role in their robotics classes. The school has an elite robotics club where members make robots under the guidance of a tutor. Every year about 150 students apply to join the club but only 20 are selected. These students will undergo training for a semester and the eight leading students are then selected in an interview session to become club members.
Yang Chunhui is an 11th grader and club member. He said that the interview questions were designed to discover the students who were best at thinking and with potential in electronics, mechanics, software and hardware.
The tutor usually helps with some of the programming but otherwise the students are completely responsible. They develop and build robots that can dance, play football or extinguish fires.
Students from the Shanghai Xingzhi Senior High School compete against students from Iran at last year's international RoboCup Junior competition in Mexico. Photo: Courtesy of Yang Rong
The problem of balance
Being a robotics enthusiast is time-consuming and the students from both teams admit having trouble balancing their passion for robots with their other studies - although it is a rule that they will lose team membership if they drop behind in schoolwork.
To keep her place as the top student in her class and to have enough time to devote her weekends to robots, Huang has to make sure she finishes her week's homework on Friday night. Many nights she is working until midnight or beyond to complete her course work. The eight members of the Xingzhi school robot team are all above average achievers in the class. Yang Chunhui said that if their academic scores began to drop, they would be kicked out of the club. Only students with above-average class scores are considered for these robot teams.
Wan Xiaobin is the tutor with the Huangpu team and explained that when he selected team members their academic performances were important. "I will only accept above-average students because they have extra energy." Students in his center's robot team have to spend about five hours in the laboratory every week and half of their holidays during the summer and winter vacations.
Yang Rong is the tutor with the Xingzhi team and while he said that he didn't only take into consideration a student's academic abilities when he selected team members, he did kick a student off the team when his schoolwork suffered because of his obsession with the robotics course. "This student had come first in the school entrance examination. However, after one semester studying programming and constructing robots he dropped to below 100 in the grade. I had a talk with him and persuaded him to quit the robotics team and focus on study."
The team members who manage to balance their books and their enthusiasm also learn about self-control and how to handle the stress of major competitions. Before they get to an international contest, the teams will have participated in several contests in China. Family members and supervisors have noted that just being a robotics team member can have a startling good effect on some.
Yang Yicheng is a 14-year-old Huangpu VEX team member. He acknowledges that he used to be arrogant and didn't work well with others but as a team member he has learned to do this. "I have to work with two partners in each VEX contest. It gives me a chance to learn to communicate and cooperate.
"I have also learned how to handle stress. I lost the first game in this year's VEX world competition, but I kept my cool and in the end we won the overall contest."
For one student, just being enrolled in a robot team changed his whole life. Wang Hao is a Xingzhi team member and an 11th grader. But he suffered from communication problems and could rarely talk or communicate to his parents or classmates. Tutor Yang Rong saw some potential in the awkward young man and made him a team member. Within a few weeks Wang showed he had a real talent for programming and he has since become more confident with himself and others. He is still quite shy though he now talks to people around him and, some say, won't shut up if he starts discussing robotics.
Not everyone in the robotics classes is there because they love robots. There are students who are there simply to boost their academic scores to have a better chance at getting into a leading college or university.
Wan said that although the VEX competition itself didn't give a student extra marks, it could impress some college interviewers.
Tutor Yang said the competitions that senior school students attend can give them a chance at admission to universities before gaokao (college entrance examinations) and might impress foreign universities. Students who pass a special Ministry of Education robotics competition can get up to 20 bonus marks.
"Many of my students have now been enrolled in leading colleges and universities which they would never have been accepted by with their gaokao scores. One student who often ranked 200 out of 500 in the grade was accepted by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which has a course for students with creative abilities," Yang said.
He said that now some parents were trying to use relatives to get their children enrolled in the robotics courses. "But I only accept students who are truly interested in the robot games and who have real potential. Only students like this can push the development of the industry in the future," Yang said. His team members are so enthused about the robotic competitions that they often work through the nights in the days before a major contest.
While the robotics contests have become very popular with high and primary school students, some parents and teachers are warning of problems with this if the contests are driven solely by market forces and prizes.
Wan said that the students' robotics courses will develop properly only if they enjoy the process. "Teachers and students in China are under too much stress. Every time we meet students, I feel as if they are just coming for a party. They don't care about the result as much as we do. They really come to exchange information with us. We want to win too much."
He said that he's learning to try to enjoy the contests as much as he can. But there is still pressure. At present the center pays for the coaching and equipment which amounts to more than 100,000 yuan ($16,282) a year.
Parents have to pay for air fares and accommodation if their children are invited to compete abroad and this can add up to 20,000 or 30,000 yuan a year. "We have to handle a lot of expectations."
Many schools encourage teachers to run robotics courses but few have survived, Yang said. "This program costs the school about 60,000 yuan a year. But if a team fails to win prizes for two or three years in a row, a school is not likely to continue supporting it financially."
A mother surnamed Yang, whose son, a sixth grader, took an outside robotics course for a year, told the Global Times that some teachers ran courses like this just to make money. "Sometimes there are so many students in a class that the teacher is incapable of taking care of everyone and there is not enough equipment."
The mother spent about 3,000 yuan annually on the course. "Teachers were keen to convince parents that the robotic games were not a waste of money." But for her boy to attend a robotics competition in Qingdao would have cost her about 8,000 yuan.
"I feel that primary school students get little from these courses because they have not studied the subjects deeply enough and most of the work is done by the teachers. It's better for them to study this in high school."
Cang Tiejian is a teacher with the Shanghai Educational Center of Science and Arts, and he manages Shanghai's RCJ teams. He said that although the value of the contests might be questioned if students and teachers took results too seriously, the contests were a good thing for young students. "They improve their ability at working together and using their imaginations to solve problems under pressure."