Sparking young minds with robotics: Two Greek students share their life-changing stories

What about making robotics as cool for young people as sports are today;

That’s exactly the mission of student robotics competitions that take place around the world. On top of them, the World Robot Olympiad (WRO), a unique international competition in educational robotics, brings together each year, nearly 70,000 students from more than 65 countries to develop their creativity through challenging and educational robot competitions. The age of participants ranges from 6 to 25 years old, spanning starter categories to more complicated challenges.

Just a few months ago, two Greek university students, Georgia Kouvoutsaki and Vasilis Kokkinos, 23 and 21 years old, were selected to be on the panel of judges for the World Robotics Olympiad in Thailand.

Before leaving for their long trip they both came in contact with us asking us if we could cover their expenses. Being aware of how passionate they both are, we were more than glad to support them in their mission. Hopefully their stories will encourage other young people and especially school students, to explore the magic world of robotics and science.

Plex.Earth: Would you like to share with us some things about yourselves and how did you develop a passion for robotics in the first place?

Georgia: Yes, sure. I am an undergraduate student at the University of Patras in the Department of Mathematics with a specialization in Computational Intelligence.

My love for robotics started back in 2009 while I was in junior high school: I was lucky enough to have two brilliant professors that created a robotics team from scratch. After being informed, I immediately signed up to be part of it.

Two series of tests followed and our professors selected me and two more girls to participate at the national finals. It was the first Robotics Olympiad ever held in our country. To our surprise, we took the first place. Our participation in WRO 2009 in Korea followed.. It was an experience I’ll never forget!

After participating in national robot competitions, I was accepted as a judge at the World Robot Olympiad 2014 in Russia, managing to become the first and youngest judge ever selected to represent Greece. I was also a judge for the World Robotic Olympiads of 2015- 2018 and at the First Lego League Open European Championship 2016 in Spain. I would like to say a big thanks to Plexscape for covering mine and other participants expenses during the WRO 2015 and 2016 as well!

Georgia with the panel of judges of the WRO 2018 in the Open Category.

Georgia with the panel of judges of the WRO 2018 in the Open Category.

Vasilis: My academic background is different: I study Civil engineering at the Democritus University of Thrace and among other things, I teach and train children for their participation in national robotic competitions.

From a young age I loved to play with toys that I made with my hands. When I was 6 years old, I fell in love with Lego after visiting Legoland in Germany and later on with Lego Technik, which comes with a whole range of new functions and building styles.

Several years later, at the age of 16, my school decided to start a new extracurricular activity, which was urging young students to experiment on a robot called “NXT”. This is a robotic kit created from Lego for educational purposes, and the main goal was for children to take their first steps on automation-robotics and programming.

My interest was immediately piqued at the time and since then, I immersed myself into robotics, doing the best I could to expand my knowledge in the field.

This is where my participation in robotics competitions begun: I started from national robotic competitions and made it to the international WRO 2015 in Qatar. It was at that international competition that me and my team took the second place in Football category (teams are asked to create soccer playing robots with a special infrared sensor), being the first from Greece to win an Olympic silver medal!

Plex.Earth: What have you gained personally and professionally all these years from your participation in national and international robotics competitions?

Georgia: For me being involved in educational robotics has opened me a new door: that of teaching. Starting from the American Community Schools of Athens, in 2016 I ended up teaching young students the basic principles of robotics, mechanics and mathematics at the educational robotics lab “Robotonio”.

While I was coaching one of my teams in elementary school, I observed that as the children had their first experience with robots, they were very excited even though science concepts seem repelling to a great percentage of students. I came to the conclusion that teaching science in a creative and practical way, like learning the laws of physics while ice skating(!) is not only possible but surprisingly effective.

To coach my team for the national finals in 2017 I had to travel 6 hours from Patras to Athens every weekend, and return to Patras on Sunday so I could attend my classes in university starting from Monday. Being sensitized towards the refugee crisis in Greece, we created a maquette of a house that could accommodate refugees in real-life. The whole maquette, made of wool and other special materials was “knitted” by a robot. Apart from the robotics part, we came up with a theoretical model of a community structure for the integration of refugees into society. We were awarded second place nationally for this project.

I’ll never forget the adrenaline and the excitement me and my team felt. We realized that with focus and discipline we can achieve even the hardest tasks. We had all pushed our boundaries back then and succeeded. An amazing feeling we all shared together.

Having worked as a teacher and volunteering as a judge helped me to see the bigger picture, overcome difficult problems, share knowledge and collaborate with great people from all over the world.

Vasilis: What I have gained all these years from my participation in national and international robotic competitions, are too many to put in an answer I think..

However, I will stick to the one thing that matters to me the most on a personal and not a professional level: The fact that I had the chance to network and become friends with other like-minded people, robotics professionals, amazing minds from around the world. It’s a source of inspiration that keeps me going.

Vasilis with two young contestants during the World Robot Olympiad 2018 that took place in Thailand.

Vasilis with two young contestants during the World Robot Olympiad 2018 that took place in Thailand.

I would strongly advice young people get involved in robotics and start participating in competitions: it’s fun and extremely rewarding. After all, robotics technology and automation is the future!