Robots in battle to boost IT and maths skills in Irish schools

14 Jan 2009

Irish students are programming robots that will fight it out in a competition organised by search giant Google and PC maker Lenovo to elevate maths skills in Irish schools and colleges.

Irish secondary students will compete against each other in the national final, which will be held on 12 March.

The thinking behind the SchoolBots Competition is student participation in computer games programming can help boost interest in mathematics and should be used to help reinvigorate the subject at second level.

Speaking at yesterday’s regional finals of the annual SchoolBots computer programming competition for second-level students at Tipperary Institute, Dr Liam Noonan, from Tipperary Institute’s ICT department, said students can improve their mathematics results by applying theory from text books to fun projects such as game programming.

The Tipperary Institute competition is the only one of its kind in Ireland and encourages students to develop new IT skills, while improving their understanding of important maths principles.

“ICT is a key sector in the Irish economy and Ireland is recognised worldwide as an ideal environment for nurturing, developing and expanding ICT operations,” said Dr Noonan.

“To maintain this sustainable sector, which is all the more essential in these difficult times, Ireland needs a steady supply of high-calibre graduates.

“With findings indicating a 56pc shortfall in the number of students taking up places on third-level IT courses and a marked decline in second-level maths grades that supply is being threatened and a creative approach to redress this and engage students early is needed,” said Dr Noonan.

“One of the most practical ways to address the graduate shortage in the technology sector in Ireland is to introduce ICT at second level.

“Mathematics is central to a range of applications like computer game programming and teaching ICT can, therefore, benefit the study of maths, enhancing student interest in the subject and ultimately lead to better exam results and increased graduate numbers.”

Eoghan Nolan, engineering manager at Google, said the whole purpose of SchoolBots is to introduce IT into the classroom in a fun and imaginative way that will also help to discover and nurture new talent.

“Innovation is at the heart of Google’s success and our people are fundamental to this. It is incredibly important to us as an employer and for the future economic success of Ireland, that our education system creates a pool of world-class IT graduates who can think creatively.

“Initiatives such as SchoolBots are key in developing an understanding among students of how mathematics applies in the real world and also in helping students develop their innovative thinking powers.”

SchoolBots uses Java to program robot tanks for battle against each other. The virtual tanks need to be smart enough to hit and avoid being hit and to move around without any kind of manual control. Prizes include a Lenovo laptop for the winning school and MP3 players for the finalists and runners up.

The winning team and 15 of their classmates will also visit Google’s European headquarters in Dublin and have a tour of its facilities.

This is the third year of SchoolBots and last year’s winner was Cashel Community College school, with all-girls school Our Lady’s Bower, Athlone the inaugural winners.

Students from schools across Ireland competed in the recent regional finals. The top eight teams will compete against each other in the national final, which will be held on 12 March 2009. Feedback from both teachers and students who entered the competition indicated that this initiative was incredibly innovative in the way it encouraged students to embrace ICT in the classroom.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years