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Celebration of Service

Volunteers and robotics competition help low-income children in Colombia


Based on the excellent results of the inaugural LEGO® robotics competition in 2008, volunteers from IBM have made this educational opportunity an annual event in Colombia, enabling more children to participate. The volunteers guide the students to program a LEGO robot to score points on a thematic playing surface, while creating an innovative solution to a problem as part of their research project.

In 2009, IBM partnered with not-for-profit agencies that offer children's programs geared toward helping economically disadvantaged students develop skills to access the labor market and the Bogota Chamber of Commerce to organize the robotics competition. The name of the contest was "Robots for a Better City," and it encouraged students to think of new ways to make our planet a better place by addressing urban challenges such as traffic, distribution of food, and recycling. A total of 48 children from 12 different organizations participated with the support of 44 volunteers from IBM.

In addition to teaching engineering concepts, the impact of the robotics initiative has also broadened the borders of the country for the students. The group that won the 2009 Bogota competition had the opportunity to travel to the United States to compete against 84 teams from 53 different countries in the international competition, where it won an award for its interesting research on ethanol production.

In 2010, the event grew to include 72 children, ranging in age from nine to 12 years, who worked with 60 volunteers from IBM and 20 mentors from the not-for-profit organizations on the "Body Forward" theme, where the objective was to think about the impact of engineering on health. In addition to studying the robots’ performances, the students needed to research selected topics connected to making the world better. Solutions presented included growing urban crops on the tops of buildings and a future where all people are aware of our resources and take care of the environment by recycling.

Carlos Barrera, an IT architect at IBM, explains why he is a permanent ambassador to this initiative. "Participating in the robotics competition each year is important to me," said Barrera. "It's an opportunity to learn about robotics, which is a personal hobby of mine, right beside the children, and have fun while learning. At the end of a competition day, it is very satisfying to see the children's faces filled with the sense of achievement and the recognition of all the hard work they've done. This is not only about robotics; this is about teamwork, solidarity and leadership."

Because this robotics initiative is so popular with volunteers in Bogota, it is a sure bet that more children will have an opportunity to benefit from it in 2011. Juan Carlos Cubides, the coordinator from the San Antonio Foundation, one of the participating not-for-profits, said, "The robotics contest has been an extraordinary learning process for the children and the teachers involved in this activity. The children used aspects of math without even being aware of it. The process comes naturally when they apply math concepts to solve problems. This initiative has also helped them express their creativity and learn about team work and collaboration."