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From Wee Waa, with heart, to deep in the heart of Texas

Apr 22, 2018 by

By Helen Pitt –

The Wee Waa "Bush Bots" robotic team.

The Wee Waa “Bush Bots” robotic team. Photo: Lauren Trompp

When the Wee Waa “Bush Bots” won the wildcard entry to the world’s most prestigious high school robotics competition last month, it was the biggest thing to happen to this tiny Northern Tablelands town since Daft Punk launched their album there five years ago.

At the announcement at Sydney Olympic Park that the eight-student public high school team had qualified to compete at the world championships in Houston, Texas, there was only one catch: they didn’t have the cash. Wee Waa High School’s 170 students, in a town of barely 1800 people, rank as one of the lowest NSW Department of Education schools in terms of socio-economic status.

Eight-students from Wee Waa High School in country NSW have qualified to compete at the robotics world championships in Houston, Texas.

Almost instantly though the help poured in. Within an hour tech giant Google offered to pay their $5000 entry fee, for the FIRST robotics competition, widely considered in America as a launch pad for careers in computer science. A local Wee Waa farmer kicked in $10,000 to the high school’s P&C-run fundraiser. A bank, a philanthropic foundation and the whole community from the RSL to the Rotary and Lions clubs, helped the students raise $63,000 in under three weeks.

A private company packed and paid to transport their robot, while passport applications were rushed through for seven of the eight students who had never left Australia before. Suddenly they were on a plane bound for Houston this week.

Namoi Cotton offered its computer programmer James Tolson to work as a mentor with the team of teenagers, who spent nearly two weeks of their school summer holidays, and mot afternoons after school building their robot. He has accompanied the team to Texas, along with four of the school’s science staff.

Wee Waa High School students on their way to Houston.
Wee Waa High School students on their way to Houston.

“Even if they don’t win, the win for us is getting here,” says science teacher Sharon Grellman from Houston, where the students are wandering around in wide-eyed wonder at the scale of Texas.

“We went to a sports stadium here which one of the students calculated could hold 10 times as many people as the entire population of Wee Waa.”

The students, aged from 14 to 18 will compete this weekend with nine other Australian teams – including two all-girls teams from Blacktown Girls High School and Pymble Ladies’ College, in a field of over 360 teams from over 100 countries.

The Wee Waa "Bush bots" at work with their robot.
The Wee Waa “Bush bots” at work with their robot.Photo: Lauren Trompp

Sally Ann Williams, who runs Google’s Robots in the Outback Program, said the support from the local Wee Waa community as well as technology companies has been overwhelming.

“Venture capitalists were eager to support them because these are the sort of students who will be building the tech start-ups of the future,” Ms Williams said.

As a girl from the Gold Coast, whose parents ran their own fruit and vegetable store, something about this team spoke to her.

“The resilience they build from these robotic competitions is really life-changing, especially for rural students … it helps them develop a growth mindset whatever crisis they face in life,” she said.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a US-based program founded 25 years ago by entrepreneur Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and MIT Professor Woodie Flowers to address the shortage of students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at university.

The idea behind FIRST is to turn science and engineering into the equivalent of a school’s athletics program where the students and their robots are the stars. In Australia, the fastest growing region, it is supported by Macquarie University.

Source: From Wee Waa, with heart, to deep in the heart of Texas

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