Laughed at, but they had the last laugh

10 students from Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School aced the competition at international robotics contest

A team of 10 students from Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School (Secondary) (PLMGS) remembers the "welcome" they received when they entered the competition area for a regional robotics competition in Indonesia.

They were laughed at.

"We were the only girls in a sea of boys," said Secondary 3 student Tan Jia Min, 15.

Pitted against over 300 boys from various Asian countries at August's World Robot Games, the girls set to work. "At first we felt intimidated," admits 15-year-old Ling Yin, also in Sec 3. "But we just kept trying."

After tinkering with wires and voltages, and putting their robots through various obstacles, the team emerged victorious four days later, clinching 15 awards across 34 categories at the annual competition.

For the girls, the wins showed how far they had come in a short time. The school's robotics group had been established less than a year before.

When Mr Indra Ahmad, the school's Mathematics and Design and Technology teacher received an invitation for an earlier robotics contest in 2015, he decided to put together a group of students who were interested to give it a shot.

The team from Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School (Secondary) that represented Singapore in the World Robot Games International competition in Indonesia comprised (from left) Charissa Wee Sze Hui, 13; Angel Yip Enqi, 13; Joan Lim Shuxian, 15; Woo Jie
The team from Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School (Secondary) that represented Singapore in the World Robot Games International competition in Indonesia comprised (from left) Charissa Wee Sze Hui, 13; Angel Yip Enqi, 13; Joan Sim Shuxian, 15; Woo Jie Lyn, 15; Andrea Seng Kia Lin, 15; Esther Chan Yue Zhen, 14; Christina Tan Wei Ling, 14; Lee Wen, 15; Tan Jia Min, 15; and Ling Yin, 15. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

"I didn't know anything about robotics then," said Sec 3 student Lee Wen, 15. "But I grew to love it."

After two months of preparation, the team ventured into the Asia Math & Engineering Competition 2015 with trepidation due to their own prejudices about girls and engineering. They came in second.

That made them hungry for more success.

Said Jia Min: "We exceeded our own expectations and our competitors' expectations of us."

The school went on to set up a robotics enrichment group this year. "Because of the success at the competition, they were spurred to do even more," said the school's vice-principal, Ms Cheong May Lan, 57.

"They were so motivated after seeing that there was nothing to stop girls from doing robotics."

PLMGS, which first opened its doors a century ago in 1916, started out as a school for boys. The school started admitting girls a year later. In 1961, it became an all-girls school.

The school was invited to participate in the competition in Indonesia after doing well in the Singapore leg where it won first and second places in the search-and-rescue category, ahead of Woodlands Ring Secondary School.

With two months leading up to the World Robot Games, the team would meet once a week to plan. "We had to start from scratch," said Mr Indra, 41, who joined the school in 2013. "I had to break the lessons down to the basics."

Competitors were given problems that had to be solved using robots. After weeks of brainstorming and trial and error, the team created three types of robots for the disaster recovery theme of the competition.

They created a search-and-rescue robot which could use a gripper to retrieve objects and pull and push things, a "sumo" robot that could simulate the pushing of big boulders and a robot that could follow floor maps to reach people that may be trapped or captured.

The competition in Indonesia, which saw 327 participants from five Asian countries, was not without hiccups.

"When we arrived, we saw that the competition track had slopes. We were not prepared for that," said Mr Indra. The girls stayed up late into the night trying to reconfigure their robots.

PLMGS was Singapore's only representative. "Students from other countries were also madly configuring their robots, plugging them in and out to test them. It was quite intimidating," said Lee Wen.

"When it was our turn to send out our robots, everyone was staring at us. We were the outsiders," said Sec 2 student Christina Tan, 14.

But they made sure that did not faze them.

In addition to three gold awards, two silvers and two bronzes, they won eight performance awards, plus a spirit award for showmanship and perseverance.

"It felt good to beat the boys, who people think are supposed to dominate robotics," said Ling Yin.

PLMGS has plans to venture deeper into the robotics arena, looking at future collaborations with tertiary institutions in the research field. Its robotics interest group has 35 students now. "The sky is the limit for these girls," said Mr Indra.

Correction note: The caption for the picture was edited to correct the name of team member Joan Sim Shuxian.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2016, with the headline Laughed at, but they had the last laugh. Subscribe