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Building Robots, Shaping Values

16 Sep 2019

PAT 13 copy
Students from Hai Sing Catholic School have won the VEX Robotics World Championship four times. But before they could make those winning robots, their teacher Teo Yee Ming had to first make winners out of them.

Mr Teo Yee Ming, Hai Sing Catholic School, President’s Award for Teachers 2019 Finalist

In a ring, two teams face off. Their task: race their robots around the ring to pick up hollow cubes and stack them over a stake within a given time. As the clock ticks, teams have to add sections to increase the height of the stakes, which increases the difficulty of the challenge.

The team of students from Hai Sing Catholic School keep their cool — they skilfully control their robots to complete the task. No surprise as Hai Sing’s robotics club are world champions – the only Singapore school to have won in the middle school category of the world’s biggest robotics championship four times, since 2012.

The champion-maker behind this group of talented students is Mathematics and Design & Technology teacher Teo Yee Ming.

To Yee Ming, while the global recognition for his students is energising, what drives him is the desire to inculcate in his students three qualities: perseverance, resilience and fighting spirit.

“When things are not smooth sailing, perseverance pulls us through. Resilience is important because when you fail, you need to stand up and try again,” says Yee Ming. “Finally, fighting spirit lets you aim high. With fighting spirit, you will fight for excellence.”

Building robots, building character

Members of this champion robotics club embark on their journey in Secondary One.
They begin by building sub-systems, like a light-sensing unit or a four-wheeled robot
that can move around. In Secondary Two, they begin building complete systems,
combining these sub-systems. The end result would be a robot that can move around on four wheels, and use a retractable arm to retrieve, say, a black object and move it to another place.

Yee Ming’s approach is not to spoon-feed the students. “I give them the specs, then they have to go think about it.”

“I want them to be resourceful. I don’t give them the fish, I teach them where to fish, which is the internet. If they are stuck, then they can go to their seniors.”

In Secondary Three, students start building the robots for the competitions, in earnest.
Yee Ming scours YouTube constantly to see if anyone has built a robot with better capabilities. “When this happens, we go back to the drawing board.”

What this means for students is that they have to dismantle their old robot and reuse the parts to build a new one – which means many long days. “It’s painful,” acknowledges Yee Ming. “In the 21st century, in this fast-changing society, there are always obstacles. That's precisely why I want them to learn perseverance, so that they can learn to overcome future obstacles in their lives.”

Learning to fight back

In Secondary 3 and 4, Yee Ming ups the stakes as part of their training. “I throw them
into unfair and biased matches where it’s one versus two. I want to train them not to back down.”

Through this, students learn to think on their feet, react quickly, and fight against the odds.

Students have stepped up to the challenge. One of his former students, Ben, had an
eczema flare-up during a tournament in Anaheim, California. But he persevered through the discomfort, heading up to the hotel room, which had a humidifier, in between matches, to soothe the skin.

“Even though Ben did not win that competition, he was a winner in my eyes”, says Yee Ming.

Ben went on to polytechnic and is now studying mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore.

Showing students the possibilities

It’s been 10 years of hard work by Yee Ming and the students to bring the robotics club to its current fighting-fit state. An R&D engineer prior to becoming a teacher, Yee Ming brought the competitive element to the robotics club. To show the students what was possible, he has even stayed overnight in school to build robots. “Robotics is visual, so I built the robots to inspire. The ‘wow’ is important.”

Initially, when Yee Ming intensified the training for the robotics club members, students and parents were unconvinced. “The parents would say to me – ‘my kid needs to study; this is not a robotics school’. These same parents later saw the change in their kids and they texted me saying ‘Thanks for nurturing my son’”.

Within a year, the club had won their first national robotics championship.

The students and Yee Ming are at the club almost every day. It’s a labour of love. What keeps these kids motivated? Says, Yee Ming,

“When they work hard, they see results.”

Problem-finding, not just problem-solving

Yee Ming also drives the school’s Applied Learning Programme (ALP) to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Through the ALP, all 560 students in Secondary One and Two get to link scientific and mathematical concepts that they learn in textbooks to real-life.

“Problem- solving is important, but problem-finding is even more important,” he says.  “The big companies that earn big money do so not just because they can solve big problems, but because they managed to identify the correct problem to work on.”

With that in mind, Yee Ming got the school to convert a classroom last year into a Maker Space to allow students to build solutions to address real-world problems.

Yee Ming trains the students in design thinking and also in interview skills. “I want them to be able to show empathy, to connect with the person they are interviewing, to identify the critical problem.

“Then they work on their solutions in the Maker Space.”

So, after speaking to staff and residents of an old folks’ home, students created an exercise band that was more comfortable and safer to use than the one the home had been using.

The students are now in the process of making games for people with dementia. One idea is an improved version of five stones, a game familiar to elderly. But they made the beanbags larger, so it would be easier for the elderly to handle.

So what makes Teo Yee Ming this force of change? His answer: “I speak with passion and work with drive.”

“Passion is the one thing that will help people achieve excellence. When you do things with passion, you will dedicate your time and effort to do it and you will find your way around the obstacles you meet.

“That’s why I want my students to find the one thing they are passionate about, and go all out to do it.”