Lexington robot team in Taiwan: Day One

From the Boston Globe

Kaohsiung 2010 all on stage.jpg

Lexington students on stage at the robot competition in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Photo by Mark Ramseyer

Last week, eight Lexington students and ten parents headed to Kaohsiung, Taiwan for an international robot competition. Here is John D. Donahue’s recap of day one of two of the competition.

To appreciate how eight Lexington middle- and high-school kids—more distinguished, by and large, for their intellects than for their dance moves—found themselves on an arena stage in a southern Taiwanese port city, leading a multinational throng in a spirited Macarena, requires a bit of background.

It starts with Dean Kamen’s annoyance that popular culture so grievously short-changed science and technology. The eccentric inventor—best known for his Segue, but long before that grown rich and respected for his path-breaking medical devices—launched a non-profit to encourage budding scientists and engineers through contests to design, build, and operate robots. Some twenty years later around 210 thousand students compete worldwide, at various levels, in events staged to mimic the affirming hoopla of a high-school sports championship.

A Lexington team of five middle-schoolers (Filip Bystricky, Josh Pachter, Christopher Perry, Benjamin Oye, and Sahana Srinivasan) and three high-schoolers (Ben Donahue, Geoffrey Ramseyer, and Amy Watterson) triumphed throughout the 2009-10 season, winning a series of regional rounds en route to nailing the state championship at the “Lego League” level. (Their student mentor, Jenny Ramseyer, also won a special award at the state finals.) That success earned them an invitation to the Open International Competition in Kaohsiung this May 7 and 8.

Kaohsiung is a sprawling, steamy, slightly gritty harbor city of around 1.5 million. It perennially chafes in the shadow of Taipei, the glittering capitol at the other end of the island. Taipei has what was until very recently the world’s tallest skyscraper; Kaohsiung has a big container port. Taipei boasts Boston as a sister city; Kaohsiung has Mobile, Alabama. So when Kaohsiung gets a chance to shine on the international stage, it makes the most of it.

The opening ceremony, to welcome 64 robot teams from 23 nations, was a spectacle of sweet excess. The parents and supporters in the stands were a little like the United Nations, except wearing loud t-shirts emblazoned with team names. The participants’ area in front of the stage was a little like the start of the Olympics, except with 9-to-16-year-old science and technology nerds instead of athletes.

Among the dignitaries in attendance at the 15000-seat Kaohsiung Arena was the city’s mayor Chen Chu, who took a break from a fierce re-election campaign to don a funny hat, welcome the kids, and exchange gifts with Dean Kamen’s emissary. A traditional Chinese orchestra stage left took turns with a Western orchestra stage right in playing national anthems, show tunes, and similar crowd-pleasers. Whenever the two orchestras simultaneously took a break the thunderous PA system pounded out Motown hits and other high-decibel classics, as it would throughout the competition.

A dance troupe from the Shu-To Home Economics and Commerce High School, dressed in stylized robot costumes and swathed in fake dry-ice smoke, did an elaborate break dance to the strains of American rap. And then it was time for the opening procession. More Home Economics and Commerce High School dancers made their way to the front of the arena in pairs, one dancer in each pair carrying the flag of a participating nation and the other dressed to evoke that nation’s image: For Brazil, a samba dancer with beads and towering headdress. For Egypt, a quite credible Cleopatra. For Germany, a fraulein in a dirndl. The Taiwanese image of Israel was a somewhat puzzling Lawrence of Arabia figure. And for the United States it was a (frankly rather slutty-looking) cowgirl.

As each national symbol reached the front of the arena the names and images of that nation’s teams appeared on the enormous screens above the stage. Spectators cheered for their own teams, but for pretty much everybody else’s as well—even the teams from Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China roared and clapped for each other. A pervasive atmosphere of geeky bonhomie set in from the very first minutes of the event, screening out any geopolitical unpleasantness that the wider world might present. If Earth had to be visited by intergalactic inspectors deciding whether the planet deserved to be vaporized or was basically OK, the opening ceremony of the Kaohsiung robot competition would show us at close to our best.

The official language of the competition is English, more or less. The “more or less” doesn’t refer in the least to the hosts. Taiwanese are well-trained in English, as a rule, and deployed some of their most fluent speakers to serve as the competition’s officials and hundreds of volunteers. But some of the other nations’ team names suggested a less-than-conventional relationship with the language. One of the Korean teams went by “Number One Virus.” The Faroe Islands sent the “Junior Kids” to Kaohsiung. A French team—fronted by a pint-sized Marianne in liberty cap—called itself “Citybike.” Thai teams seem to have a weakness for abstractions; one was called “Sagacious,” and another “Effulgence.” But candor requires me to concede that no team’s name exceeded the loopiness of Lexington’s own “Battery-Powered Picklejar Heads.”

The rest of Day One was a frenzy of 180-second robot performances, technical judging, teamwork competitions, and presentations of the research projects that each team prepares. In between judging rounds kids mill around in team uniforms or national costumes, visiting each others’ booths to exchange gifts and technical pointers despite the frequent lack of any common language. Varying levels and directions of jet lag heightened the hallucinatory aura. Across the aisle from the Lexington team’s booth was a Thai team, one of whose members dressed as a Siamese goddess in flowing golden robes with a temple-tower headdress, happily posing for photo after photo with kids and coaches from other countries. Flanking the Thais was a Japanese team called Ss501—for reasons that elude me—and the Extreme Team, a chatty, cheerful group of veiled Saudi girls.

After a teamwork test—the kids were handed soda straws and told to concentrate their breath to keep marbles from skittering off a table—and a half-hour of practice on a mockup of the official playing field, it was time for the Battery Powered Picklejar Heads to conduct the first of three robot runs.

Along with five other teams they set up their robots on ping-table sized playing fields at the front of the arena. Music pounded, lights blazed, and cameras scanned, projecting close-ups of robots and team members’ faces onto the big screen. The master of ceremonies—an elegantly dressed black man with a Cockney accent—kept up a steady, echoingly amplified patter to mark time until all the teams were ready. Outside the barriers screening each playing field from the crowds clustered the team’s supporters, shouting or chanting encouragement in various languages. Three…two…one…a buzzer blared, the MC shouted “go!” and the robots were off.

The Lexington team’s robot charged down the field. As team members clenched their fists and parents tried to stay calm, the robot deftly snagged loops, scooped up objects and returned them to base, threaded its way through obstacles, and performed each of the other tasks the year’s official challenge required. A minute and a half down of the two-and-a-half allowed to complete the mission, and it was clear this would be a good run. A few more tasks performed, an elegant pirouette into base, and the robot subsided, its work completed with thirty seconds to spare. And the Picklejar Heads were leaping in elation with a perfect score—not unprecedented in this elite group, but not common.

As the Lexington team packed up the robot and headed toward their jubilant parents, the master of ceremonies suddenly summoned them back and ushered them up onto the stage. The team went willingly, but with some puzzlement—was this perhaps a peremptory judgment of first place, without the tedium of finishing the competition? Alas, no—merely a lull in the schedule, requiring some improvised entertainment to keep the crowd happy while the next set of competitors got ready. The Picklejar Heads, explained the MC, would lead the dance. Surely they all knew the Macarena, that standby of bar mitzvahs and equivalent rituals worldwide? As Sahana, the team’s dance maven, gave some emergency lessons to her colleagues the music thudded and swelled, the MC called out encouragement, and the Picklejar heads began to dance, at first haltingly and then with more confidence.

The MC swept into the audience, corralling teams and individuals and sending them onto the stage to join the leaders. A team of teenage boys from Malaysia. A large Chinese group that, moments before, had been chanting their team cheer on the sidelines. The hijab-wearing squad of Saudi girls and their coach. A group of Japanese girls in their school uniforms of plaid skirts and white blouses. A lone Mexican, wearing serape, sombrero, and Dia de los Muertos skull mask, gyrated next to a coach from one of the French teams, dressed inexplicably in a chicken suit. As the dance accelerated and swirled the teams grew scattered, Chinese and Malaysians and French intermingled. The coach from the Saudi team in full dish-dash, flowing white robes and red-checked headdress, was seen separated from his charges and high-kicking among the plaid-skirted Japanese. And at the center of them all, right up front and under the spotlights, having an improbably good time, the Battery-Powered Picklejar Heads of Lexington.

A good Day One, all in all.

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