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Children from Poor Neighborhood in Santiago Shine in Robotics World Competition

By Dialogo
May 19, 2009

Winning an international competition is always a source of pride, but for children from the poorest areas of Chile, winning the Robotics World Competition is a real feat. 17,000 laborer families live in the community of La Pintana; unemployment exceeds 15 percent and store no longer offer credit to their customers. La Pintana reported the highest rate of juvenile crime in all of Chile, and only two out of ten children complete secondary education. It is in this community south of Santiago where Franco Lillo and his colleagues from the Nocedal College created the project which won first prize at the World Robotics 2009 First Lego League, which was held in the United States last month. Franco is 16 years old and, like his friends, has lived his entire life in La Pintana. Last year his professor of Technology, Patricio Acuña, suggested that he enter the foremost robotics competition in the United States, the Lego League, a competition in which, in Chile alone, 129 schools were represented, among thousands of others from around the world. Acuña encouraged his students to devise a project to help reverse global warming. Nine young men set to work creating a green robot. When Franco found out that the professor was looking for volunteers Acuña did not hesitate a single moment. "I was the last in the group. The teacher was testing me, and I passed. That was how I managed to enter," he recalls with pride. Not knowing what awaited them, the "Spectrum Bots" team passed all national tests and traveled to United States to represent schoolchildren. "Many can reach this level in our country, and even surpass it if the job is well done, if they work together with teachers, parents and students," says Miguel Arce, director of the Nocedal College. But once they qualified, the problem was to obtain resources to travel to Atlanta (USA), which hosted the final stage of the tournament. It took 21 million pesos (about 3700 U.S. dollars) to pay for travel and accommodation. None of the families of the young inventors had the funds for this, but with the help of the Ministry of Education, the boys packed their bags and traveled to the United States on April 16. "The school helped us to perfect our robot before the competition. They let us miss classes to perfect the project, and we also met during holidays to adjust details," says Franco. And that is how the little hero of this story emerged. "Spectrum," a self-contained robot developed with Lego Mindstorms technology, was crowned world champion in the "Innovation" category for its complex system of automatic irrigation. The prototype has the task of facilitating reforestation of the planet through solar-powered water irrigation. The amount of water required for operation is regulated by a device that connects directly to the root of the tree. The robot operates autonomously and does not require a human operator, which reduces maintenance costs. It was the dedication and determination of these guys that assured their victory, the college director emphasized. "They are all kids in their teens who love sports, being with friends, and going out, but they spent a whole month working on this project," explains Miguel Arce. Very few understand how a handful of youths from the poorest communities in Chile achieved first place in a contest that gathers representatives from the most developed countries of the world. For Professor Acuña, when there are no economic resources, the important thing is to tap into creativity. "We won for a job well done because the creativity is there, all you have to do is develop it," he says. Franco Lillo and his companions think the same thing, and now dream of studying technology, computing, and engineering, to continue inventing. "The effort was worth it; we realized that with effort and perseverance you can achieve things."