15th CRC Robotics Comp brings lessons beyond the classroom

For 15 consecutive years, hundreds of high school and CEGEP students have flocked to the Montreal-based CRC Robotics Competition, tasked with creating working robots over three days. This past weekend’s competition was no different, with thousands of spectators cheering on 500 students making up 24 teams.

By the end of the weekend, student teams made up of 12 to 19 year-olds from Francophone and Anglophone public and private schools must come up with a robot and produce a video, a web site and kiosk presentation.

This year, the Overall Champion Trophy (best combined score in all categories), presented by Hydro-Québec, went to Collège Montmorency. Meanwhile, Macdonald High School and Marianopolis College came second and third in the Overall awards (finalists with the highest combined score in all categories).

The CRC Robotics competition is the largest, longest-running high school robotics competition and hands-on learning event in Quebec. In fact, according to the organizers, it’s the largest academic student competition with both French and English schools competing together in the same event. And finally, as if that wasn’t impressive enough, it’s the only robotics competition of this scale where students are required to do all design and building without any adult intervention (adults may only answer questions, ensure safety, and show how to use tools).

The main problem that the organizers are trying to tackle is that an alarming 22 per cent of boys in Quebec drop out of high school. While tradition education is doubtless a benefit to all, CRC’s Peter Szilagyi feels that there are major limitations in that realm that the CRC Robotics competition is directly addressing.

“It’s my belief that there’s no other experience like this available to youth anywhere that I am aware of,” Szilagyi told MTLinTech. “The more students can experience the CRC Robotics Competition, the more prepared, empowered and inspired our youth will be to face the world, and where it’s headed.”

He added that the student’s learn to create things in robotics, film-making, web-design, journalism, presentations, and building kiosk expos, all by doing. But Szilagyi feels the biggest value gained by participants is not the technical skills, but “real-world skills that are otherwise absent from student’s high school experience such as learning from and overcoming failure (in building all the components of the competition, every team we have known has had to deal with failures), to working in a team and learning how to deal with a large group of people to attain a common goal.”
CRC Robotics

In that sense, one of the biggest lessons he feels students learn is simply to not quit. Szilagyi’s favourite award given by CRC Robotics is the “Never Say Die” trophy (Lâche pas la patate), given to the team that demonstrates the most “grit” throughout the competition.

This year the award’s selection required the most debate among the organizers, because 15 out of 24 robots had yet to score any points after the first two heats. But the determined student teams worked on their robots “non-stop,” and by Saturday every team had a working robot that was scoring points. Students, said Szilagyi, learned that even when they felt like they were on empty, they could still push harder to reach success.

“It’s difficult to dispute the importance and value of the real-world experience that youth gain by participating in program like the CRC Robotics Competition,” said Szilagyi. “It’s still the only multidisciplinary hands-on-learning experience for students, anywhere, that I know of where all the work is done exclusively by students, all in a thrilling high-intensity environment.”

CRC Robotics

CRC has already started planning the 16th Annual Competition, to be held in February 2017. Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis and will end in October 2016. The CRC is open to any school that wants to join, and CRC representatives are available to visit schools, to give live robotics demonstrations and to get students interested in forming a team and joining the fun.

On the administrative side, the CRC Robotics Competition has also been a nice story. Szilagyi started in 2001 as a founding member, and now runs PR and partnerships. He said because CRC chooses to set its fees at a rate that any school can afford to participate, they’re much more limited in their funds that many other non-profits. Still, CRC covers its costs and has been able to grow from 17 participating schools in 2011 to 31 schools in 2015, thanks to the many volunteers that donated their time. Since 2013, the number of committed volunteers rose from three to 20.

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