“It Takes A Village” To Rank In A Global Robotics Competition

“It Takes A Village” To Rank In A Global Robotics Competition

by Karen Abrams, MBA
It has been a week since Team Guyana performed so creditably at the First Global Robotics championship in Washington DC.  Much has been written or discussed about the team’s performance, nearly all glowing praise and for that STEMGuyana will be eternally grateful.  A friend of mine from childhood, Ras Brown asked me about the factors of success and whether this success could be replicated and I promised him that after a period of deep analysis that I would pen my own thoughts on the matter.
To begin, there are some basic structural factors which I have often shared but which bear repeating because of their importance; the first being the belief in the program by the influential First Lady of Guyana, Sandra Granger, who moved quickly in 2016 to help facilitate the original project that helped make Team Guyana possible.  The members of the diaspora who provided the funding for the robot kits back in 2016 and then again supported STEMGuyana in 2017, are also to be lauded, without them, none of this would be possible.  We must also acknowledge the Director of Sports, Mr Christopher Jones, the Ministry of education, and all of our local supporters and sponsors who heeded the call for support [click here for list]. Additionally, STEMGuyana has an informal network of advisors who review, comment on, and provide feedback and advice, on most of our plans, to them we owe our immense gratitude.  These people are a never ending source of encouragement for our the leadership team, especially on those days when the journey seems all uphill.

Structural factors aside however, one of the first things we decided early on was that we wanted a team that represented students from all educational sectors in Guyana.  We also wanted young people from as many geographical areas as possible.  Since robotics was new to Guyana, our goal was to find sharp students with great attitudes who were willing to commit to four months of hard work.  So we reached out to GTI, UG Computer Science department, and graduates of our last robotics camp.  We ran an outreach campaign on facebook targeted to all regions of Guyana and the result was a pool of students who were excited, motivated, committed, and bright.  ‘Bright’ for STEMGuyana though wasn’t about grades or subjects, we never asked and we didn’t care.  Bright for us were curious students who learned quickly and who researched on their own, who read the various manuals, who quickly became subject matter experts in various areas; electrical, rules, programming, writing, media, research, building or engineering and game controls; some expert in more than one, some more than two areas.  We ended up with young people from Timheri, Kuru Kururu, Den Amstel, Georgetown, Industry, Buxton, Enmore and Maiconey; from GTI, UG, Diamond Secondary School, Bishops, Nations and some were not in school.  We are confident that we picked the best and the results reflect that.

After recruitment, we focused on culture and organizational behavior.  Our motto was ‘let’s keep the simple things easy.  We’ll expend our energy on the difficult stuff” [like acquiring technical expertise we needed in a brand new space.]   The simple things were; doing what we say we’re going to do; getting to the clubhouse on time; respect for each other; looking out for each other; love for each other, understanding that we had no experts in the room therefore everyone’s opinion was valid until it was tested and proved or disproved.  We spent time talking about the world, about what it took to be successful, about adding value and about the power of self-confidence.  We experienced several opportunities to reinforce the culture, in fact this was the foundation of the club, our reinforcement of the culture we wanted was ongoing.As we continued to reinforce culture, we began to strengthen our technical skills.  We focused on process; idea, test, analyze results, make decision, and this helped us to troubleshoot nagging problems and to identify solid solutions.  We reached out in Guyana for technical expertise and were visited by several technical experts both from Guyana and the diaspora, who offered expertise but it was Coach Ricky Chan, Computer Scientist and his co-worker David Saul, Architect by training, who drove the initial designs, sent scores of sketches, and kept ideas buzzing.  But there were many technical issues to resolve, design being the biggest one, and we realized that we needed the benefit of a larger source of ideas.

The team began to look around them for inspiration and soon came up with the ‘combine design’ to ‘harvest’ the balls [water particles] in the game.  My own view is that Guyana’s design for harvesting was superior.  They then looked in their own backyards for inspiration and used a single pole to support a critical beam on the robot, much the same way, we use a single pole to support a clothes line in Guyana and that design was also effective.  The most effective implementation however, had to be the ‘koker pull up system’, a gear system used to elevate the robot off the ground, this function was worth 20 points per game.The creation of the koker system was due to an inbox message I received on social media by someone I have never met named Fraser Duncan.  On June 6th, I received a message from Mr Duncan asking “ever think about having those kids work a project to improve the koker system?” Since we were in the middle of troubleshooting robot issues, I didn’t give it much more thought but about a week later, when we were sitting in the clubhouse, I threw it out to the group to get their thoughts.  Within an hour, they had come up with ways to create a notification system, they knew which sensors they would use, they came up with ideas for design and more.  If not for the competition, we would have launched a research project in this space.  Simultaneously we continued to struggle with the elevation function.  We would design a solution, engage the motors, the solution would work and then three tries later, the motors would burn out.  These motors cost us $25 USD each to replace so the problem was expensive, but we didn’t give up.

One evening I spoke to my husband Leon about kokers and he explained to me how the gears worked to lift those heavy doors.  I didn’t completely get it but I shared his feedback with team captain Ryan Benschop and Coach Ricky Chan and the next morning, a group of us hopped in a bus and headed down to visit the Camp Street and Kingston kokers in Georgetown.  By the time we returned to the clubhouse, Coach Ricky had already sketched the solution, and Ryan and Arrianna set about building it.  In the final analysis, the system created was robust, effective and never failed us.  This process was true team work coupled with curiosity, creativity and commitment.

It is my view that Team Guyana was successful because of the work of ‘the village’.  You know of the members of the team and of the adult mentors Horace Moseley, Ricky Chan and Farnaz Baksh, but do you know of Mr Colin Sawh who was present every day, who pitched in wherever needed, who facilitated our conversations with sponsors; do you know of Ms Jeannette Frank who managed our financials and who made sure the team received lunch and travel allowances? do you know of Stephanie Simon and Leigh-Raine Amsterdam and Bobby Samuels and UG Communications and Computer Science students and staff members who supported us in ways too numerous to mention, from the very beginning.  Do you know of our 18 volunteers who showed up for our fundraising exhibition and worked diligently to help make that event a success?

‘The village’ supported this team and the young people grabbed the opportunity and were determined to make the best use of it.  Most of the young people associated with STEMGuyana will not be Robotic Engineers, in fact, only two have expressed that interest and they are both female UG Computer Science Students.  Most of the young in STEMGuyana will however be critical thinkers, problem solvers, innovators and creatives who will add value to their communities and country by working to solve major problems.

Since their return, STEMGuyana has kicked off several research projects which most of the Team members now lead.  Some teams are studying the koker system, some are building a solution for blocked trenches, some are working on drones and all of them are serving as ambassadors to grow STEM clubs and provide opportunities for other students throughout Guyana.

Many people have asked me what I am most proud of and I respond without hesitation that I am proud of my own children Ima, Asha and Caleb Christian, who pushed to pass on their knowledge to the young people of Guyana and I am proud of Team Guyana for their commitment, their determination to succeed, their confidence, their love for each other, their cooperation and their pride in their country.  Seeing them rally from a string of disappointments to a 10th place ranking is a feeling that I will never be able to adequately communicate.  These young people represented Guyana well.  I will never forget this experience.