“When I grow up, I want to work for the UAE Space Agency,” the 13-year-old Emirati said. “I want our robots to go to Mercury and Mars – all planets.”
Omar is off to a good start in realising his ambitious robotics engineering dream. On Sunday, the eighth-grader was one of about 1,500 pupils and coaches from public and private schools across the country who met in the capital to compete in the annual WRO UAE National Robotics Challenge.
The 375 teams of up to three pupils were given 150 minutes to build programmable, mechanical robots that could complete a series of tasks less than two minutes.
The tasks, or challenges, had to mimic recycling as the theme for this year’s competition is, Rap the Scrap – Robots For Reducing, Managing and Recycling Waste.
About 24 judges paced around the floor at IPIC Arena, inspecting the robots’ abilities to move around the board, flash lights, pick up, move and purposefully drop blocks without breaching the borders. The robots are animated through computer codes programmed by the pupils.
“It’s super fun to see children come up with different ideas and different mechanisms and to see the teamwork, because everything is based on teamwork out here,” said Athul Manoj Kumar, 22, who is a judge and a former competitor.
When Mr Kumar was a pupil at Our Own High School in Dubai, he competed in the 2013 UAE National Robotics Challenge and went on to represent the country at the World Robot Olympiad in Indonesia. His team built a flying robot that earned them first place – a first for the UAE in the international competition.
But more than the trophies and accolades, Mr Kumar said his greatest reward from the robotics challenge was the enriching experience that he credits as a factor in setting him on the path to his career as a mechanical engineer.
“There are a lot of concepts in engineering that you can learn through Lego robotics,” said Mr Kumar, referring to the Lego Mindstorms kits the pupils use to build their robots.
“It involves both mechanism and logical thinking. Students are building a robot and also they’re programming it altogether at once. It’s a mix of that, so that’s what drives the students into engineering.”
The competition fits right in with the Abu Dhabi Education Council’s mission to instil a love for and appreciation of science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) among pupils, said Dr Karima Almazroui, Adec’s acting P-12 executive director, who toured the competition floor along with other high-ranking officials.
“It ties to both high critical thinking skills and innovation, so it very much aligns with what Adec is supporting,” said Dr Almazroui.
“It looks at student-centred education, so it’s not only about being in the classroom, it’s getting applications in their hands and they’re benefiting from what they’re learning. So the students actually know how things work, how to fix things. They can apply all the things that they learned. This is an excellent way.”
Dr Najla Alnaqbi, Adec’s e-Learning manager who runs the competition, said it continues to grow in popularity as students seek out more hands-on learning.
“We thought there would be maybe 150 teams participating,” said Ms Alnaqbi, noting schools were given short notice about the event. “But we were shocked that registration was very, very high.
“The students’ enthusiasm to participate was quite evident this year. Even though schools had very short notice but, mashallah, a lot of students participated. So, it shows that the students are keen to take part in these activities that allow them to interact with stem related ideas and projects.”
As for Omar, the budding space robotics scientist, he hopes the UAE will one day be a model example for the world to follow.
“I want all the world to know the United Arab Emirates (and say), ‘Wow, they are perfect in their robotics,’ because I want it to be the leader in robotics,” said Omar.