ZIO MWALE, Lusaka
SEVEN young Zambian students are representing the country at the FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology] Global Robot Challenge in Washington DC, United States, where over 160 countries are also participating.
FIRST Global organises a yearly international robotics challenge to ignite a passion for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) among the more than two billion youths across the world.
It was established in the United States as a not-for-profit public charity to provide the framework for an “Olympics”-style robotics challenge.
FIRST Global invites one team from every nation to participate in an international robotics event that builds bridges between high school students with different backgrounds, languages, religions, and customs.
“By bringing these future STEM leaders together in an engaging and collaborative competition that drives home the importance, excitement, and applicability of STEM education, FIRST Global inspires students to learn the skills they will need to make the discoveries their parents and grandparents would consider miracles, impossibilities, or just plain science fiction,” according to the organisation’s website.
“FIRST Global also strives to convince the various national governments and organisations of the world to embrace STEM education, and to support it by investing in their young adults that will soon begin to make their marks in the world.”
It was founded by Dean Kamen, a prolific inventor, entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for science and technology. His roles as an inventor and an advocate are intertwined with his passion for practical, real world uses of technology, and his personal determination to spread excitement for and the virtues of STEM to the more than two billion youths around the world. “Dean’s drive comes from his firm belief that the tools of science and engineering will help equip the world’s youth to solve the most pressing global challenges we face as a planet, both today and tomorrow,” reads a brief on the website.
Each team at the FIRST Global Challenge has a story to tell and a mission to accomplish.
The Zambian team is made up of Mwengwe Mpekansambo, Chewe Malupenga, Clivert Mande, Ephraim Mulilo, Makasa Mwamba, Mphande Phiri and Jireh Katebe, who were all drawn from different provinces across Zambia.
Each year, a different grand challenge is chosen as the theme for the competition. This year, the theme of the competition is to provide access to clean water, a problem that affects a lot of people.
Zambian team leader Mwengwe explains that there is already a robot that can purify water, which was invented by the initiator of the challenge Dean Kamen, who sent a robot kit with instructions to all teams participating including Team Zambia, so that each team builds a new one for the challenge.
“This robot is at the moment meant for the competition, we hope that in future, it will purify water to satisfy the needs of people,” she says. “For communities that lack clean water in Zambia, the benefits are obvious, but to realise the potential, the robot needs to compete in the challenge.”
The rationale behind the water theme is that access to clean, drinkable water has proven to be a potent source of political, economic, and social strife in nations throughout the world – the effects of which have been felt everywhere from Sub-Saharan Africa to the United States.
At present, more than one billion people do not have access to clean water and over half of them are children. This lack of access to drinkable water results in more deaths each year than those resulting from war. If current water consumption trends continue across the globe, two out of three people on earth will suffer from water-stressed conditions by the year 2025.
Mwengwe says the robot’s name is Epoh (Hope spelt backwards) meaning a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. Team Zambia defines Epoh as a robot that will bring back hope to the world by helping to provide clean water.
“The process of building Epoh involves a lot of trial and error, the team began the process of building it by first identifying and experimenting to understand what they could do with each component,” Mwengwe explains.
The members of Team Zambia had their own individual takes on the whole experience.
Jireh, who is the JETS [Junior Engineering and Technical Society] national winner in the physics category for 2016, describes the process as “tiring and fun!”
Makasa says whenever they solved the problems in one stage and moved onto the next, they had to go back to the drawing board and restart from scratch.
“This is because new problems always arise when we move onto another stage and when we fixed these new problems, the old problems suddenly returned,” she said.
But Chewe says despite all the challenges they faced, they received a lot of support from the public, which encouraged the team.
Mentor for Global FIRST Team Zambia Peter Lungu, who is also the executive director of the Zambian Institute for Sustainable Development (ZISD), says the institute has gathered some of the best students in robotics to represent Zambia.
The students were picked based on their interest and performances in past competitions in school.
“The robot is aimed at addressing the challenge of water pollution that is faced by almost every country in the world, the technology will be created to separate clean water from contaminated,” Lungu explains.
“We’ve worked hard to ensure that the team selected will represent the entire country. We further ask for stakeholders to sponsor this activity.”
Well, they have someone cheering them, Minister of Higher Education Nkandu Luo, who says it is encouraging to see young Zambians being ambitious and willing to face challenges just to put the country on the map.
“It is very exciting that I have met a group of young students who are so ambitious, brave and creative, as a ministry we recommend such innovations,” Professor Luo said when she met the team at her office.
The minister also passionately shared the need to fully address the evident deficit in STEMs in the country’s educational system.
“Youths, especially females, are intimidated when it comes to STEMs. They feel such courses are only made for the males but everyone can take up the challenge, it’s only finding interest in pursuing them [STEMs],” she explained.
She further said that the ministry will soon introduce such initiatives in public learning institutions in order to encourage young students to venture into science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Since May, Team Zambia has been mastering the basics of robotic designs through tutorials in mathematics, physics, engineering and programming languages like Java in Lusaka in a studio provided by ZISD.
The main event runs from tomorrow to Tuesday at the Constitution Hall in Washington DC.