Skill, not luck, powers teens to RoboCup victory

Students (from left) Shen Yixuan, Samuel Tan and Leong Heng Yew with their teachers, Mr Danny Choi (in blue) and Mr Terence Ten. The students won the Individual Team title in the RoboCup Junior League - CoSpace Rescue Secondary category last month.
Students (from left) Shen Yixuan, Samuel Tan and Leong Heng Yew with their teachers, Mr Danny Choi (in blue) and Mr Terence Ten. The students won the Individual Team title in the RoboCup Junior League - CoSpace Rescue Secondary category last month.PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Dissatisfied over last year's narrow win, team works hard to retain title at robotics contest

"I don't need luck, I have skill," read the status under team captain and student Leong Heng Yew's WhatsApp profile.

This motivational quote drove the Yishun Town Secondary School student to do even better than at last year's RoboCup world championships when his team narrowly won in its category. One of the strongest teams from Iran had made mistakes and was eliminated before the finals.

Since the December holidays last year, Heng Yew has spent a few hours every week reading self-help books and poring over online forums to perfect the algorithm of his team's robot.

"We analysed videos from other teams and tried to model their programmes to make our algorithm 'smarter' and less dependent on chance," said Heng Yew.

He and his two teammates successfully defended the crown late last month, winning the Individual Team title in the RoboCup Junior League - CoSpace Rescue Secondary categoryat the world championships in Nagoya, Japan.

The team's expertise showed as they also swept two other prizes in the same category for the first time, winning both the Super Team and the Best Technical Challenge titles.

The team comprised three Secondary 4 students from the school's Infocomm Club - Heng Yew, Samuel Tan and Shen Yixuan, all aged 15.

EXTRA EFFORT

We analysed videos from other teams and tried to model their programmes to make our algorithm 'smarter' and less dependent on chance.

LEONG HENG YEW, one of the three students in Yishun Town Secondary School's winning team, on defending their title in the RoboCup competition.

All of them had fewer than three years of experience in programming and no formal training.

So much so that when they showed their world-beating algorithm to their teacher, Mr Danny Choi, 34, even he was surprised .

The physics teacher, who is in charge of the club, said that the students' achievement was a good instance of self-directed learning.

"It is really an amazing achievement, especially since all I taught them was whatever little I remembered from my undergraduate days in engineering," he said.

Although the team walked away with the world title last year, they were dissatisfied because they felt it was a lucky win.

Mr Terence Ten, 56, who is also an Infocomm Club teacher, said: "We told them that if you depend on luck, once it is not on your side, you can never defend your title.

"They felt good about their win but they wanted to repeat it... It mattered to them as they were the graduating cohort."

The team emerged first after six rounds of matches at the championships, fending off competition from 14 other countries, including China, Japan, Mexico and Britain. They qualified for the world championships by being the Singapore champions in March.

Each match lasted eight minutes and took place in two environments - the physical and virtual worlds.

Teams have to upload the code they developed into a robot to collect "objects", which are coloured marks randomly scattered over a playing field filled with obstacles and traps.

The objects are "collected" by the robot's scanner before being deposited at a designated zone.

The team whose robot scores the most number of points for completing this task wins.

Said Mr Choi: "Because the robot moves by itself without being controlled, it is very difficult to do well if you have a pre-planned path. Instead, the path has to be calculated in real time."

All three students are considering applying for computer science courses when they go to university in the future.

Said Samuel: "If possible, I hope to go to Hwa Chong Junior College, because of its strong robotics programme."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'Skill, not luck, powers teens to RoboCup victory'. Print Edition | Subscribe