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Programming performance: Bishop’s School robotics teams show their skills in international competition

Elisabeth Holm of The Bishop's School open platform robotics team.
The Bishop’s School student Elisabeth Holm was in charge of her team’s robot’s speech recognition and speech synthesis as well as sequencing the robotic arm movement.
(Courtesy)

When the coronavirus pandemic grounded in-person meetings, the robotics teams from The Bishop’s School in La Jolla carried on, completing their tasks virtually and participating in an international competition from home.

Marcus Jaiclin, the private school’s Wu Tsai chair in computer science, coached 11 students on two teams in the RoboCup@Home Education competition June 27-28.

The standard platform team, composed of sophomores in Bishop’s Upper School (the campus serves sixth through 12th grades), worked to program a standardized robot called Pepper, including “facial expressions to an extent, gestures and movements,” Jaiclin said.

The team worked on a COVID-19-related theme, Jaiclin said, in which Pepper “would allow you to check off symptoms you had and give you a percent chance you had COVID and recommend whether you should get tested or not.”

The school’s other team, called open platform and made up of juniors, had more flexibility, being “open to whatever robot you want to make,” Jaiclin said. The Bishop’s team chose a turtlebot, “basically a hacked Roomba without the vacuum cleaner inside of it,” he said.

The open platform team’s robot also had an arm with “five different degrees of freedom, where it could rotate and bend and a gripper to pick things up with.”

Jaiclin, in his first year at Bishop’s but with five years’ experience in coaching robotics, began working with the students on their robot programming as an extracurricular activity in February, meeting twice weekly at Bishop’s to train for the competition.

Student Elisabeth Holm, 16, worked on the open platform team’s robot and said she loves robotics because it involves “having a goal and making it come to life.”

Elisabeth was in charge of the robot’s speech recognition and speech synthesis as well as sequencing the robotic arm movement. She said programming the robot’s tasks with her team led to a “sense of community and teamwork, working toward a common goal. I feel really accomplished after creating something that works.”

Pandemic-related restrictions meant a ban on meetings, so Jaiclin began to coach virtually. The standard platform team learned to program Pepper using an emulator, a computer animation of the programming.

Jaiclin said the standard platform team was easier to transition to virtual meetings “because we could all use the same emulator. Different kids could work on different aspects of it,” such as movement, the probability model and presentation flow.

Virtual training was more difficult for the open platform team, Jaiclin said. “I had enough parts to spread some things around, but not everything. I would drop stuff off at one student’s house for them to work on. I would wipe everything down with disinfectant, leave it on their porch for them, text them. … I would pick it up later, wipe it down again, drive to the next student’s house” and keep repeating the process.

Elisabeth said working remotely on the robot was an extra challenge, having a “huge setup on my desk of four computers and a robotic arm” after Jaiclin delivered components to her house. Also, it was “harder to be disconnected from everyone,” she said.

The RoboCup competition was held virtually for the first time. The contest is normally held in one of three regions: the Americas, Europe-Africa or Asia-Pacific, Jaiclin said. He’s attended in previous years.

Teams are selected through a process that involves writing a team description and research proposal that are evaluated by a panel of judges. The Bishop’s teams were invited to participate this spring.

Teams from places such as China, Italy and the U.S. West Coast had to meet simultaneously on Zoom. Coordinating time zones meant the competition ran from 4 to 7 a.m. for the Bishop’s students.

The standard platform team took first place with its “fun and technically proficient” presentation, Jaiclin said.

The open platform team was invited to the finals.

Elisabeth, accustomed to robotics competitions on a “playing field” in which teams complete goals and earn points, said she “didn’t know an online robotics competition would be possible.” She worked with her teammates to adjust their presentation for Zoom to demonstrate the robot’s capabilities.

The team placed fourth, missing the podium by a few points. “It was fun, it was interesting,” Jaiclin said.

Jaiclin said he’d like to send a team to the 2021 RoboCup competition, which is scheduled to be held in Bordeaux, France.

He’s also looking to diversify the range of ages on his teams to “have continuity of knowledge. As some kids graduate, the knowledge is passed on to younger kids who can then continue the work.”

Spreading STEM spirit

Science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, play “a big role in changing some of humanity’s biggest challenges,” Elisabeth said. “My personal passion is around climate change and education inequality. I hope to one day use my robotics and coding capabilities to address these two issues.”

Elisabeth joined a robotics team in elementary school and began a “lifelong passion [for] STEM, and now I’m trying to contribute back in a way that I was influenced.”

Elisabeth founded a nonprofit called Sisterhood of Native American Coders, or SONAC, “to address education inequality for indigenous girls [ages] 9-12.”

She said she hopes the organization, “one of the most challenging, exciting and personal things I’ve done,” will build a “lifelong community for the girls who join.”

Elisabeth, who plans to major in computer science in college, said, “I’d like to take my coding and robotics skills to inspire the next generation of young female innovators.”

For more information about SONAC, visit sisterhoodofnativeamericancoders.org.