SUGAR GROVE – Like most kids their age, Harter Middle School eighth graders Kaitlin Liu and Linda Ray enjoying taking a break from school and other responsibilities to just hang out and have fun.
Unlike most of their peers though, Liu and Ray are also young, skilled robotics engineers who are using their creativity and problem solving skills to help make the world a better place. And they’re having a lot of fun, making new friends and earning some quite impressive accolades while they’re doing it.
Known as Team Katlinda, the duo recently went to California where they won first place at the 2019 World Robot Olympiad (WRO) USA National Championships in the Open Category Junior Division and advanced to the international competition in Hungary in November.
“The overall experience was pretty great,” Ray sad. “And we’re really good friends. We had a lot of fun. We got to go to California and meet a lot of different people in the competition.”
Liu said the inspiration for their robotics challenge came from her love of animals and a passion project in Suzanne Satterfield’s seventh grade science class about endangered species that live in the water.
“I’ve always liked animals and there’s a lot in the ocean,” she said. “Animals are getting hurt by litter every single day so this is something that can help.”
After speaking with wildlife experts at Kane County Forest Preserve, Friends of the Fox River, Hickory Knolls Discovery Center and Fox Metro, they discovered how vulnerable these animals are to pollution so they built a prototype autonomous, solar-powered waterbot to help clean up habitats for aquatic wildlife.
“They came up with a water-based solution and when they first came to the regional in early August they had a good solution and we told them to put water in the pool to make it more real-like,” said Will Wong, national organizer for WRO. “It’s kind of like Shark Tank (the reality TV show where entrepreneurs make business presentations to a panel of investors) so they basically have to sell their idea. And their solution had to be sellable but also credible and the judges were executives so they had to work hard on their pitch.”
While Liu and Ray acknowledged that competing at such a high level was a bit nerve-wracking, it was a great experience overall, especially earning first place.
“I was kind of worried,” Liu said. “We were excited about it, but were surprised to do so well.”
Unfortunately Ray cannot make the international competition in Hungary so Liu’s older brother Sean is going to take her place and become “Team Kaindan.”
But although she won’t be able to travel to Hungary, Ray will remain involved from overseas as Sean Liu, a self-taught programmer, is working on keeping them connected and allowing Ray to participate in some way from 5,000 miles away.
Also enjoying success and a great experience competing in California was the team of Kaneland High School’s Sean Liu and Logan Cunz and Marmion’s Billy Eby. All three boys live in Sugar Grove.
They brought home fourth place in the Regular Category Senior Division.
“Our robot had a certain challenge where it had to pick up blocks and put them in squares in certain orientations,” Sean Liu said. “It used two arms to pick up the blocks which means it had to approach blocks from different angles and different ways to put in spaces for the right way.”
Their robot was required to think on its feet and solve problems on its own.
“We didn’t do the greatest at the competition,” Sean Liu said. “We made some mistakes, but overall it didn’t go too badly.”
Cunz said he was pretty satisfied with how his team fared.
“The challenge was very hard, so much so that event organizers decided not to have a ‘special rule’ because the challenge was so already too difficult,” he said. “We were pretty satisfied considering we scored points while half the field didn’t even score, a testament to how difficult this year’s challenge was.”
Eby recognizes how blessed he was to be able to be a part of all this.
“It was a great opportunity to go to California and compete against other teams from around the nation,” he said. “I think it was a great learning experience that a lot of people don’t get to do.”
He also can recall when at least two hours was the norm for the group to take apart and then reconstruct the robot. Now they can get it done faster than an episode of The Big Bang Theory.
“Obviously we practiced a lot and worked as a team,” Eby said. “One thing about robotics is it’s extremely cool. It’s challenging. You get to learn a lot. You get to create something and can say ‘I made that!’”
The future is certainly bright for this group of kids who may too be young to truly appreciate their accomplishments.
“So much goes into this and it’s not just robotics, but with project ideas and a whole complete experience to go through,” Wong said. “And then they had to drag all that to California and go up against these teams from all around the world, so it’s pretty intense. It’s a big feat for them to just be able to do it and it gets harder and harder every year in the finals.”