U.K. home-schoolers come to Tokyo for robot comp

Donning T-shirts of all colors and designs, some of the world’s brightest science-minded boys and girls met in Tokyo in late April for the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Open Asian Championship, an international robotics competition for children aged 9 to 15.

The atmosphere was tense at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Shibuya Ward, where 700 children from 25 countries showed off their computer- programmed robots. Disco music blared and the frantic voices of emcees echoed across the arena, adding a sense of frenzy to an event in which participants were already under heavy pressure.

In the competition, which was started by the U.S.-based charity FIRST and toy maker LEGO in 1998, children in each team use a kit provided by LEGO to design and build their own autonomous, portable robots that perform various tasks. Teams score points whenever their robots, equipped with light and touch sensors, move back and forth between their bases and structures such as a hydraulic dam and a house with a solar-powered roof. Teams also make oral presentations of their technical and team-building skills, as well as research related to a particular theme, which this year was exploring the best ways of producing and consuming energy.

Among the 56 teams were a group of children from the town of Swindon, west of London. They had been invited to compete in Tokyo after winning second place in the U.K. final in February.

While most other groups at the competition were from school-based robotics/science clubs, the British team, named Tech HEds, had one unique characteristic: All of them are home-schoolers, who, rather than attend school, study at their own homes.

How can they become so good at complex stuff such as robotics without going to school? Precisely because they don’t go to school, according to parents of Tech HEds children, including Shena Deuchars, who serves as the coach for the six-member team.

Members and their parents have opted for home education for a variety of reasons. Deuchars, who has home-educated her children Katherine and James, aged 16 and 13, respectively, from birth, says the choice came from her own experience of not being challenged enough at school. Heidi De Wet, on the other hand, says she decided to remove her two children from their school after she found that it was not providing enough support for her older boy, Colin, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects a child’s ability to socialize and communicate with others. It is considered a mild form of autism.

While Tech HEds members have different reasons for having chosen home education, they all share an interest in robotics. Through their weekly four-hour practice, the children have picked up various skills together in the course of preparing for the robotics contest.

“We do things that are important to our lives,” says Deuchars, who supports the family by working from home as a copy editor at night and in the early mornings. “So when we do robotics, rather than saying, ‘OK, now we are doing English,’ ‘Now we are going to do math,’ or ‘Now we are going to do technology,’ we do everything together.”

Competing for the third time now, Katherine says robotics has become a big part of her life. And since the team members don’t go to school, they have been able to spend longer hours in preparation for the competition.

“From September through December (when local competitions are held), we basically live, sleep and eat with robots, because it’s set up in our kitchen,” the cheerful, outgoing girl said. “Some nights, we almost forget to eat dinner because we are busy with robots!”

Coming to Japan gave the children an excuse to study the Japanese language and culture. Colin Putman, aged 12, said he picked up some Japanese characters from a book, showing a sheet full of meticulously written kanji and katakana. He also watched “Seven Samurai,” a 1954 Akira Kurosawa movie, with his family. The youngest member of the team, 10-year-old Hal Batty, designed the black T-shirt with the ingenious Tech HEds logo, featuring letters made out of gears, magnets and such.

Home-schooled children, whether they use textbooks or not, follow their interests, so their learning style is relaxed, the parents say. Indeed, despite the tenseness in the gymnasium, the children — obviously accustomed to such competitions — looked relaxed most of the times, with some members reading paperbacks or chatting with other teams during the drawn-out practice sessions.

Relaxed — except during the game, of course.

As Simon Davies, aged 16, and Aidan Putman, aged 12, stepped up to the pit to run their robot, everyone else watched them intently. Every second mattered, because the team was given only 2 1/2 minutes to demonstrate the fruits of their months-long work. Every time the pair cleared a mission — whether that be moving trees or removing oil barrels off the oil-drilling platform — after having pressed buttons on the robot to activate their preprogrammed moves, a huge chorus of “yes!” erupted from the floor. In Round 1 of the three rounds, Tech HEds scored 325 points out of 400.

In the end, the team missed winning a trophy, with a Swedish team securing the championship and other awards ending up in the hands of 14 teams, including those from Malaysia, Japan and Norway. But Deuchars says they were happy with the team’s performance.

“We did the best we could, and although it would have been nice to win, only 15 teams out of 56 took a trophy home,” she says. “But all 56 teams are winners — they are in the top 150 teams out of 10,500 in the world.”

What probably mattered more was the whole experience of coming to Tokyo for the event. The team members and their families said they enjoyed their first-ever visit to Asia, during which they had a bit of sightseeing time. They also chose to stay at a Japanese-style inn and tasted the local food. All this would have been difficult had they not pursued robotics as part of home education, they said.

“There was a team who won a prize at the U.K. final last year, and they were invited to go to Atlanta (for another international FLL competition),” Deuchars said during the event, gazing at all the teams at the gymnasium. “They said, ‘We can’t, because we have government exams.’

“But for us, we think this is such a wonderful opportunity for the young people. So to come here and to meet all these people from other parts of the world, to make friends with teams from Turkey to Germany to Korea and Taiwan — to me, that is education.”

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