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The Outback, Soccer Robots, & Future Engineers

The Outback, Soccer Robots, & Future Engineers

Austin, TX--Australian Ian Thorpe may be making headline news at the Olympics this week, but a fellow Aussie, Brian Thomas, drew a standing-room-only crowd of middle and high-school educators here at NIWeek, 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 ten 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://www.robocupjunior.org.au/) 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 are attending 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://mindstorms.lego.com/eng/products/ris/index.asp. 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."

He was here at the event to share those first-hand experiences with fellow teachers. Hence, his discussion of how to deal with the "Interfering Adult Syndrome." "One angry parent can spoil the event," says Thomas, who recommends keeping adults locked out of competition areas-just to be on the safe side.

"This event is a great a venue for educators who use ROBOLAb in their classrooms to exchange ideas and share best practices," says Betty Justus, an educational Consultant at LEGO, sponsor of the event.

Attendee James Scott agrees. A middle-school teacher for the past few years, Scott introduced RoboLab to his class 3 years ago, initially as part of an after-school science club. The second year, he integrated it into his classroom teaching. Since then, participation has grown from 27 to 121 kids.

"It's good to hear about some of the novel things that people are trying, plus the LEGO people from Denmark invited some of us to discuss how we're using the produce and brainstorm some ideas for future product development," says Scott. "It's been pretty amazing."

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