By BING PAREL
Bucking financial difficulties, Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and other challenges, six kids from Abra High School – a public school in the Cordillera Administrative Region – demonstrated grit and determination to bring home twin bronze awards in the World Robot Games 2021 online competition.
Having been born in Abra where I spent the first 11 years of my life – finishing elementary in a public school located in the capital town of Bangued – any news about the province will always pique my interest, if not curiosity.
Coverage has mostly been focused on the pervasive poverty and the political unrest, however, which is why when news broke out that six junior high school kids from Abra High School won bronze – two in fact – in the online edition of the World Robot Games (WRG) 2021, I just had to find out how David James Rayver Viado, Venice Balbin, Marc Dei Niel Bides, Ma Teresa Reyes Viste, Keneth Seruno and Shefally Daime Valencia were able to achieve such an incredible feat considering that science and technology, more so artificial intelligence and robotics, have not really been strong in Abra.
As it turns out, their coach and mentor with the unusual name, Jephunneh Gasmen, played a pivotal role.
According to Teacher Jeph, there has been little interest in robotics in the past few years, with mostly teams from Baguio City and Benguet joining the WRG and other artificial intelligence/robotics contests like the World Innovative Technology Challenge (WITC). “We were only able to join science fairs, compete in investigatory projects, physical sciences, life sciences and the like,” he said in the vernacular.
A Bachelor of Secondary Education major in Physical Sciences graduate, cum laude, from the University of Northern Philippines, Teacher Jeph admits that robotics and intelligent machines are of special interest to him, also noting that most people expected that these would involve humanoid, life-sized robots patterned after C-3PO of Star Wars fame. “I thought it would be impossible for us to create the same because we lacked the resources, financial and otherwise, to join in those categories,” he admitted.
But then he saw that there are also simple mechanisms that are considered as robots, so he figured that his kids could probably do the same. It all began sometime in 2018 when a Grade 8 student approached him, saying that his classmates had been belittling his project because it wasn’t working.
“He was not my student as I was handling Grade 9 at the time, though we had a science investigatory project where I was adviser for research,” Teacher Jeph narrated. He took a look at the student’s project and suggested some modifications, since it was not initially feasible. But the teacher saw that it had potential, noting that artificial intelligence could be integrated.
“I researched on artificial intelligence to figure out how it could be integrated in the project. I shared my research and also showed him videos on mechanics since his innovation was a device, and I let him work on the modifications I suggested,” the science teacher continued.
The next school year, the kid became Teacher Jeph’s student. “I knew that he was already prepared for competitions because he was able to work on his previous project, and he had another project again, which was a simple mechanism that would carry objects and sort objects by color,” he shared.
The simple mechanism became a breakthrough of sorts because it was the first time for Abra to have an entry under the robotics category for the annual Science Fair competition organized by the Department of Education. That small milestone served as a catalyst for kids like David Viado who has an interest in electronics, which he describes as his hobby. The interest has also been kindled in the other students who were also performing well in the science subjects, convincing Teacher Jeph that they also had potential.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic happened, upending life as people know it. Children, too, felt the impact as schools had to close, with face-to-face classes shifted to online sessions. And since they were minors, the students were not allowed to go out of their homes.
“David kept asking me about our first robotics experience so I sent him the materials I had researched, and told him that since we were under quarantine restrictions, he can study them. As I was unable to provide face-to-face coaching or mentoring, we settled for virtual interactions and online chats. Although that was not also easy to do since we had limited Internet connection in Abra,” Teacher Jeph shared.
Competing in the WRG is challenging, to say the least, because teams had to go through a preliminary stage, with winners in the national stage the only ones allowed to compete in the international level.
Hope sparked, however, when World Robot Games decided to hold the 2021 competitions online and make it open to all competing teams. Obviously, the global pandemic and the travel restrictions that went with the situation was a major factor in the WRG decision. Hence, the theme “New World After Covid” for WRG 2021.
“…Our mission in WRG has never been clearer. That is, to continue to provide an exciting and holistic platform for all robotic enthusiasts worldwide to learn and compete with each other,” the website stated, with teams challenged to innovate and create robots according to the theme.
A team composed of Grade 9 students David Viado and Marc Dei Bides and Grade 8 student Venice Balbin decided to work on a portable hands-free sanitation station with dual renewable energy sources (microbial fuel cell and solar), while Grade 10 kids Ma. Teresa Viste, Keneth Serunno and Sheffaly Daime Valencia conceived of a contactless disinfection channel equipped with an automatic sensor.
The lockdowns due to the pandemic already made the task of guiding and mentoring the kids difficult, but this was also compounded by the limited financial resources needed for purchasing the kit that has a micro controller that would enable a “robot” to function.
The guardians and the parents ponied up and were supportive in every way they can, proud at the fact that Abra had two entries in the online international competition. “I asked for the support of the school principal, Mr. Bernardez, and he was very helpful as well. I was also using my personal finances to support the projects but everything was really limited,” disclosed Teacher Jeph.
Asked about a local automotive parts company that offered support, the science teacher replied: “They were supposed to help, but they imposed certain conditions and had a contract made out. But I didn’t like the conditions, so I decided to decline the offer.”
He admits that there was also a point when he just wanted to give up because of the limitations and difficulties they were facing. Consistent communication was virtually impossible, aside from the fact that he also had to ensure the children’s emotional and mental health, not just their academic capability.
There was also added pressure because word has gotten around that two teams from Abra High were competing in WRG 2021. But what boosted his spirit and gave him inspiration were the kids themselves who were undaunted and wanted to pursue their respective projects.
“If I gave up as their coach and mentor, it would be like crushing their dreams and stifling their academic potential,” Teacher Jeph said. He certainly knows whereof he speaks, coming from a poor family that was a recipient of the government’s 4Ps program (a conditional cash assistance program to the poorest of the poor), working part time while studying and then self-reviewing for the Licensure Exams for Teachers (LET).
According to Teacher Jeph, it took them about six months from concept to research to pilot testing and fine tuning the models. What they lacked for in finances, they more than made up for with their ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness, utilizing ordinary, recyclable materials like plastic water containers, old sinks and water faucets as well as junkyard scraps to develop their robotic models.
The kids presented a video of their projects which served as their qualifier, but the clincher was the Q&A with a panel that grilled the students about their respective projects and asked if these would still be useful post pandemic.
“I told them yes, our project would still be useful even beyond the pandemic because we will never be 100 percent sure that the coronavirus will be eradicated. Some people might still be carrying the virus unknowingly, so contactless disinfection and hand sanitation would still be useful to avoid transmission,” explained Tere Viste.
Not surprisingly, the Abra High School teams received high praises from Education Secretary Leonor Briones when they took home bronze medals for both entries, saying that the feat is yet another evidence of the world-class talent of our young learners, lauding them for giving our country another source of pride.
“Even if the students did not win, what I was really after was for them to explore their own potential not only inside the (virtual) classroom, sitting the whole afternoon with just their ballpen and paper, working alone on their modules. I could just imagine their situation, being a kid during this pandemic, so I wanted to divert their attention from the anxieties they may be facing and the depression they may be experiencing.
“But as teachers, we have to continue with teaching and other academic tasks; but the point here is for children to still enjoy studying, and to not view education and learning as stressful. I wanted to find a way for them to learn and enjoy at the same time, so the robotics competition served as an avenue to achieve that objective,” Teacher Jeph shared.
Working on the robotics project made their experience “authentic,” the educator elaborated, since they had to go beyond the theoretical. Most importantly, going through the competition and coming out as finalists and bronze medalists – beating over 20 countries in the process, proved that “kaya pala nila” (they can win), Teacher Jeph smiled in recollection, the pride obvious but becoming emotional at this point.
“I know they will not forget what is perhaps their best experience during this pandemic,” Teacher Jeph said.
“Electronics is really my hobby and joining the WRG was really my dream and my goal. Win or lose, just being able to join was already an achievement for me,” beamed David Viado.
“It’s also a great achievement for me because in the first place, electronics is not my forte. I’m more into science and biology, so I just wanted to have this new experience, to discover something new. I did not expect that joining the competition would lead to something more. That we represented our country was already a big achievement for me,” Tere Viste revealed.
“I know they will be able to use this experience in the future, perhaps in their professions or when they are facing difficulties – because they can look back to their journey going to the World Robot Games finals and become a source of encouragement for them that they have what it takes to rise above difficulties, go beyond their limitations and emerge as winners,” Jephunneh Gasmen concluded.
About the Writer
Bing Parel is a Senior Vice President for the Editorial Department of WSP Incorporated, a Filipino-owned communications firm. In her past life, she was a travel magazine writer and associate editor for a glossy, and was also involved in the national campaign of a presidential candidate. She describes herself as a domestic diva on weekends and confesses that one of her frustrations is the inability to solve a Rubik’s Cube despite her teenage son’s patient encouragement and tutorial attempts.
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