Australian Ian Thorpe may have been making all the headline news at the Olympics. But a fellow Aussie, Brian Thomas, drew a standing-room-only crowd of middle and high school educators at NIWeek (Aug. 17-19), to talk about another major international competition—for a little bit younger but no less intense set. The teachers listened raptly as he described how the only 10 students in a tiny middle school 100 km inland in the Australian Outback made it all the way to the RoboCup Junior International Competition (http://rbi.ims.ca/3855-549) in Lisbon in July. That's no small feat, given that the program, in which students build robots to compete in a soccer-like tournament, has expanded in just five years to include some 1,000 Australian teams of four to five students each. This year, the Aussies vied with some 20,000 students from 29 countries worldwide, including China, Iran, and the U.S., for a chance at the gold. Some 175 by-invitation-only educators from around the world attended this special event here focusing on ROBOLAB, a robot development kit that combines LEGO bricks and a version of NI's LabVIEW graphical development software (http://rbi.ims.ca/3855-550). Designed to introduce basic engineering concepts to kids of all ages, the wildly popular kit that was first introduced 14 years ago is making its way into classrooms around the world—thanks to events like the RoboCup Junior Competition. Like the U.S., Australia is facing a shortage of engineering graduates to fill technical positions in the future. Thomas sees the competition as a way to expose kids to science and technology in a fun and meaningful way. "For a lot of kids, math and science courses are dull and uninspiring. We're finding RoboCup is turning them around, even getting them thinking about pursuing a degree in engineering."
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