2017 JCEO Robotics Tournament

23 12 2017

….(This is going to be a long one…brace yourself!)

We are thrilled to report that the inaugural Just Cause Education Outreach Robotics Tournament was a huge success on Tuesday! After 6+ months of planning and preparations, including developing the official rules, signing up teams, finding sponsorships, equipment and arranging everything from the official game rules, venue, transportation (which Ugandans refer to as “TP” and we find pretty hilarious), locating media coverage, finding sponsorship/grant money, designing & ordering certificates and meals…. we somehow pulled it off!?
We have been planning this since July when the students from our two robotics teams from neighbouring cities wanted to have a competition. We proposed a tournament to take place in December as a culmination to the year. In September we released the rules to each of the teams and they had to use the same parts to design, build and program two different robots to compete in the tournament. Upon arrival in Jinja on Friday, the last minute questions came flooding in from both teams and we did our best to respond to them or find them help from other teams and mentors. We had to address a lot of concerns, and provide a lot of clarification and encouragement. We were nervous, the teams were nervous and our volunteer committee was nervous, having an equal number of questions and needing a lot of clarification too!

Since schools in Uganda were out for Christmas break it meant we had to deal with transport from many different places to insure that students did not miss out. Since schools are boarding schools, most of the students from the Nazigo team had returned to their villages for the holidays 2 weeks prior to our arrival. Many students were in a panic contacting us concerned that they couldn’t get there due to the cost of the matatu (about $5-$8 per student, return) and they did not want to be “cut from their team”. Of course being cut was not going to happen, but we really wanted them to all be present after their hard work and to experience what we knew was one of the best parts of being involved in robotics – competition!

In the end we hosted 16 students from J-Robtoics (Jinja) and 8 stduents from Fusbots (Nazigo) as well as their school’s computer teacher. The teams arrived at 8am as did our 6 event volunteers all ready for the day to get going.


A Hive of Activity in the Pits.

The day started out with some work time in the “pit area” where teams could get things assembled and then calibrate and test their robots on the game field and robot arena. This early in the day we had a major highlight – giving the Fusbots their surprise brand new team T-Shirts that they didn’t know were coming, and the new members of J-Robotics who earned their place on the team got their team shirt too. We have an earn your shirt system by keeping attendance and having the students document their work in the makerspace, especially leading up to events like this, so that they are merit based and decided upon by the veteran members. Otherwise we would have kids just showing up for a free shirt! It has become a really big deal to earn your shirt on J-Robotics and we made sure to explain it to the Fusbots and their teacher so that they would be able to hold on to the extra shirts until it was “time”.

Judges evaluating robot design & mechanics

Following the “shirt ceremony” and work in the pits, each team had the opportunity to present their robot to a panel of judges who had a very comprehensive format to follow. The judges were very inspiring and meaningful to the students involved as they were Ugandan University students that we knew who were in their last year of study in computer science and engineering. They were the perfect fit and the students were very excited to be evaluated by such experienced, knowledgeable judges. The teams took the process very seriously. Students were interviewed, and their robots evaluated based on everything from mechanical design, their code, the strategy, teamwork, wiring and safety. They had to present their biggest challenges and successes as well as talk about both the hard skills and soft skills they developed throughout the whole process.


After judging and inspection for legal parts and safe operation, VEX robots were first up. This was a head-to-head competition called “Free-for-all” that was kind of like basketball with several twists including a whole lot more balls, an autonomous bonus at the start and an end game “hot potato” style challenge. Matches were only 3 minutes in length but they were INTENSE! When that first goal was scored, it marked the first ever VEX goal made in Uganda and it was a pretty exciting moment!!! We were just so relieved to see both teams get on the field, have operational robots and that our referees and game officials understood what to do to make things run smoothly that we can’t believe we managed to be focused enough to capture this on video! We had a friend who contacted one of the reputable Ugandan news services “The Daily Monitor” and they sent a reported to cover the event. It couldn’t have been more perfect timing for her to walk in just as this first goal happened!

Following the 5 VEX matches, we had lunch. We had made a reservation for all of the students and the event volunteers at a local Ugandan restaurant that was able to handle a group of our size. The stduents were SO shocked that they were getting to go out to a restaurant and having “all foods” (basically a Ugandan feast that includes all of the local/traditional foods that everyone in Uganda loves and has for all celebrations! It is

pretty tasty and definitely a LOT of food!) Of course, as expected, despite checking in multiple times the last 2 days, the restaurant did not have the restaurant setup after we walked everyone there and they were scrambling to get enough tables and chairs crammed in to accommodate all of us while 34 people stood out in the blazing December sun waiting for 10 minutes. The kids didn’t even blink, this is pretty standard protocol in Uganda, and it is always us outsiders that were being impatient and hangry! The meal was a lot of fun and the kids, like typical teenagers ate and ate and laughed and took a million photos and selfies and made a lot of noise and had an absolute blast!

After lunch it was time for the next event, the “NeXT Winter Games” which was being played with Le


go Mindstorms NXT robots. This event was a collaboration with our friends from Team 4525 Renaissance Robotics in Canada so we started up the Google Hangout so the Ugandan teams could watch and time the Canadian team and vice versa. There were 3 events total and each of the teams had 3 attempts. We had a lot of fun cheering for the robots as they set and broke course records and watching in agony when they faulted! It was very equally matched in this event and all of the students thoroughly enjoyed meeting one another and sharing their common passion for technology. When you see the students working in their teams on their robots and during competition you cannot describe what you are seeing in action as anything but “passion”.

J-Robotics – 2017 Tournament Champions!

At the end of the day our judges Ben and Latif tallied their judging score cards and Liz, Joel and Emma added up the final scores from VEX and all 3 Mindstorms events and came up with the winner for each individual event and the overall tournament champion. J-Robotics won VEX over the Fusbots and the NeXT Winter Games went to Renaissance Robotics followed by the Fusbots in Second and J-Robotics in third. Students were awarded medals and certificates for their accomplishments as well as some event stickers. In addition, we were able to give Fusbots their own Arduino kit and extend them the offer to take part in the Kampala competition with J-Robotics this May. It was an awesome moment to hear the Fusbot team basically gasp when we told them about the kit and the competition and J-Robotics cheer wildly to have their new robo-friends go with them to the event!

Volunteer referee & score keeper Liz receiving a big thank you from J-Robotics team captain Ronnie.

We made a special presentation to our volunteers who were as thrilled as the kids were to receive their certificates, stickers & a special event branded notebook. Finally, the overall winning team was announced, and the team trophy awarded. Congratulations were in order to J-Robotics the 2017 inaugural JCEO Robotics Tournament Champions!


We made a special presentation to our volunteers who were as thrilled as the kids were to receive their certificates, stickers & a special event branded notebook. Finally, the overall winning team was announced, and the team trophy awarded. Congratulations were in order to J-Robotics the 2017 inaugural JCEO Robotics Tournament Champions!

By this time it was pretty late in the day, a little after 8pm (we had been there since 8am!) and we had to get the out of town students on their matatus to get home! It could be anywhere from a 3 to 6 hour trip so we needed them to move it. This was probably the biggest challenge of the day because none of the kids wanted to leave! They wanted to keep working, testing and playing with their robots on the field and in the arena zone. We basically pushed them out the door (with a good ol’ guilt trip) and managed to lock up and get out by 9:30 ourselves.

Shots fired! Fusbots long-range shooter in action!

What we love about the STEAM programs we are establishing in Uganda is that they are not “lesser versions” of the “real thing”. Our students are able to learn 21st century skills in an equal capacity as their overseas peer group as they are using the very same equipment and competing in the same events. They are able to witness this “sameness” when they are competing online together and it helped to make the tournament not only fair competition, but one that all of the teams felt equal in. The only disadvantage we are experiencing in Uganda compared to Canada with robotics programs, is finding replacement parts or things like rechargeable batteries and duct tape at times of the year when we do not have a way to get them there. So far this issue has been very minimal, but, we are trying to prepare as best we can for this possibility by keeping good track of which kits and parts are in which of the two makerspace locations. The students and our volunteer staff have been excellent caretakers in this regard and have been very much accountable for everything in the months we are absent.
Thanks to the help of the students from Renaissance Robotics back in Canada, and a very generous IEEE Canada Foundation grant that we received this month, we were able to cover the costs of this tournament and obtain the needed equipment to ensure that all 3 teams had what they needed to take part and will be able to continue with more of these same events in the future. “When can we do this again?!” was a question asked at least 10 times before the event was even finished!

One of the most rewarding parts of the whole tournament was seeing the volunteers and the students in action. Our volunteers really had no idea about robotics, but we did a training session with them, had communicated with them regarding schedule and rules leading up to the event, and they really took the lead. They LOVED it — it was so obvious by how much ownership they took over their role. The learning that happened in this regard plus the fact we had all Ugandans running the event as volunteers, AND it all went so well, set a really important example for the students involved. Between this and the genuine team-to-team collaboration, troubleshooting and helping out that we saw through the day as well as the friendships that have developed between the students, we are really feeling that we have started to establish a legitimate “youth tech community” in Uganda, just like we have at home. Again, an equal access opportunity.


Lead programmer Samual (Fusbots) and Abubaker (J-Robotics) sharing coding secrets!

Their posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the number of thank your emails and comments and Instant Messages we have received from the students and volunteers have been such an incredible testimony to how much fun everyone had and how truly appreciated the work was to put this on. This was just one more parallel to what happens at home in Canada after every tournament event with all of the pictures and selfies with medals and robots that saturate every participants newsfeed in the aftermath! We loved seeing all of these posts & messages! On Friday, we met with another group of about 50 students in a neighbouring town called “Bukiya” that inspired us to already make a plan to grow our programming further, yet again, this summer. We are planning to have the two existing teams run our original introductory workshops that they both went through for these new students, and possibly establishing a third team! What a tournament we could have then! More on that in July!

The other upcoming plan, other than GISU tech competition in May, is the students want to initiate a friendly competition with the students at Horizon International School that is in town that we met in Kampala last year with them. They want to do a coding challenge and something with Arduino since they both have the equipment. It was terrific that this was the J-Robotics kids’ own idea and they want to initiate it and organize it with just us to provide some adult advice and guidance. We love that they are not intimidated by the “rich kids” and do not feel at all disadvantaged or unequal. This makes us endlessly happy and really validates what we are doing.


From last summer until now, our worry about our first official tournament being successful was…pretty constant! We had no idea if it would fully work, despite our best efforts. We still can’t believe we pulled it off and of course we will do it again!!! (don’t worry kids!)
A huge thank you is in order to the IEEE Canada Foundation, Hacker’s for Charity and Renaissance Robotics for the support and generosity in making this event possible!





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