Robotics clubs unlock potential for at-risk Nicaraguan youth

By Gretchen Robleto

October 3, 2017

At a national competition, underdog team from the Caribbean Coast brings home the win


MANAGUA — As the gymnasium scoreboard clock ran down, Sintia and her Robotics Club teammates furiously pieced together and programmed small robots to tackle the obstacles before them in front of a group of judges. They were facing off against 28 other teams at Nicaragua’s first National Robotics Olympiad competition, held in the capital of Managua on Sept. 24.

The newly established Bluefields Robotics Club, a 30-member group that was divided into several teams of three, entered the contest as an underdog. But Sintia and teammates Kerry and Sang Ying built and coded their way to victory – and now they’re going on to represent their country at the World Robot Olympiad in Costa Rica in November.

“I did not expect to win – it was quite a difficult competition. It’s incredible and exciting,” Sintia says. “Exact measurements had to be taken for the robot to perform the assigned tasks. With a lot of effort and dedication, we managed to build the robot and coding.”

The Bluefields Robotics Club was established with support from a project called Technical Vocational Education and Training Strengthening for At-risk Youth – better known by its Spanish name “Aprendo y Emprendo.” The project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International.

For the team, their win brings home more than just trophies – it is proof that their newly formed club from the isolated Caribbean Coast region can hold its own against competition from across the country.

Their journey from a group of students at Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University to national champions was a long one, requiring weeks of training and practice so that they could build and program robots to complete tabletop challenges like picking up objects, navigating courses and responding to colors.

And to get to the capital from Bluefields, the team piled into a small boat called a “panga” and took the two-hour trip across the Escondido River, followed by a more than six-hour bus ride to Managua.

Kerry, a member of the winning team – named TechnoWallyBots – says their dedication and teamwork led them to the surprise win.

“Now we’ll continue to give all we can and give Nicaragua a good name as we participate for the first time in the World Robot Olympiad,” he says. “This was a very close competition, and it was a pleasant surprise to have won. It’s an experience I’m not going to forget.”

Sintia quickly assembles a robot at the Nicaragua National Robotics Olympiad in Managua. Photos by Jose Collado.

Giving youth the tools for technical careers

USAID’s Aprendo y Emprendo seeks to increase access to quality technical education and vocational training for youth up and down Nicaragua’s isolated and ethnically diverse Caribbean Coast region by providing scholarships to 1,000 at-risk youth and strengthening technical training institutions, including Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University.

The university is one of the eight education institutions with which Aprendo y Emprendo is working closely to build its capabilities and become a “model” education institution for the region in quality, accessibility and sustainability to better serve students, particularly those from vulnerable communities. Aprendo y Emprendo hopes to expand the clubs to other schools Caribbean Coast region.

The Robotics Club was formed as a way for students to explore technology and science concepts, problem-solving skills and teamwork. Local partners Fundación Zamora Terán, a nonprofit that aims to increase students’ access to education and technology, telecommunications company Comtech and Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University’s Innovation Laboratory are supporting the club.

Luis Gerardo Bravo, Employability Specialist for Aprendo y Emprendo, says the club members had 40 hours of training and are now teaching other youth in the area about programming and technology.

“The Robotics Clubs are about hands-on and minds-on activities, aimed to promote student collaboration, access to opportunities to design, build and program a robot, which strengthens their science and math skills,” he says.

In addition to technical skills, the Robotics Club teach valuable lessons in teamwork and leadership, says Comtech owner Ernesto Varela.

 “It creates a much friendlier learning environment for sciences, math and physics. Children and young people learn by doing, and the Robotics Club create a positive place for them to take on new things, to experiment, to learn,” he says. “That will generate new technological solutions that can be applied to different sectors, such as the economy, medicine, agriculture and more.”

Aprendo y Emprendo and its partners are providing the club members with the equipment they need to build and program small robots – starting with computers and an educational robotics kit made by Lego. Students work together to build the robot piece by piece and then control its movements with programming.

Adonis, 19, a student at Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University, says the club has made great progress from its first meeting to the competition.

“When they asked me to join the Robotics Club, they gave us the kits and we had no idea what to do with them,” he says. “Now we are pioneers – we’re tutoring three students per team, preparing for national competitions and practicing algorithms and programming.”

Bluefields Robotics Club members Kathia and Adonis hold a small robot they built.

A place for girls in STEM

Youth in the Caribbean Coast average just three years of schooling, and there is little access to education in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. For girls and young women, particularly ethnic minorities, social barriers can make pursuing interests in STEM even more difficult.

Kathia, 22, is a founding member of the Bluefields Robotics Club and an aspiring computer science engineer – she would be the first in the profession in her small community in Pearl Lagoon.

“I discovered that you can imagine something and try to do it,” she says of her experience with the Bluefields Robotics Club. “I have learned how to work in groups and solve problems and how to code something and test if it works … We have discovered that if everyone works as a team, we can stand together, but if we’re divided, we’re weak.”

Aprendo y Emprendo is dedicated to empowering women to pursue non-traditional careers. Nearly half of the hundreds of scholarships already awarded through the project have gone to female students.

Chief of Party Rose Mary Garcia says that when the project lifts up women and helps them realize new opportunities and achieve their goals, they are better equipped to create more promising futures for themselves.

“Breaking gender barriers boosts their self-esteem and empowers them,” she says. “This new generation of women will be more resilient to risk factors, such as poverty, violence, drugs and human trafficking.’’

And Garcia says that the Robotics Clubs are giving young women in-demand skills that can help them succeed in the modern workforce.

“Getting girls and young women interested in technical fields like programming, mechanics and electronics is crucial in the process of developing a robust workforce that can meet the demands of the 21st century,” she says. “We are finding that Robotics Clubs are a powerful tool to attract young women to the STEM fields, where they are underrepresented.”

Despite the obstacles she may face as a creole woman from the Caribbean Coast, Sintia says that she’s not shying away from the competition or the male-dominated STEM field.

“I would like to encourage girls to join the Robotics Club, and I’m calling on girls in particular because usually we only see boys involved in robotics. Girls need to know that we all have the same abilities to achieve anything we want,” she says. “I am very happy that our team won, on behalf of all the other [Bluefields] teams and the Caribbean Coast.”

With editing by Evelyn Rupert

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