Sunday, 5 January 2014

AURA - 3 Years On

One of the organisations that I'm involved in is the Auckland University Robotics Association (AURA), whose 3rd birthday is today. Back in late 2010, after competing in the VEX Robotics Competition in high school, I realised that there was no vehicle for those of us who had moved to university to continue that interest in robotics, and to pass on that interest to others. I put out the feelers and found 20 or so of us who had competed in high school, some of whom had not ended up in Engineering (as you do when you transition from high school to uni), in the same situation. We decided to get the ball rolling and try to create a club; after all, no one else was going to do it and there was nothing for us to lose.


After many e-mails and letters around the University of Auckland, we eventually got a meeting with the Head of Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Two of us went into the meeting with no idea about what we would get out of it. We weren't particularly optimistic, given that the majority of the rest of our enquiries were ignored and we got no traction anywhere else in the university. We made a pitch, explaining what we wanted to do, what we needed, and why it would be a good idea. We came out of the meeting with a space at the back of a computer lab, permission to order several thousands of dollars worth of parts, and the grace to exist in the University. We're still not entirely sure how or why, but without their willingness to take a risk on us, none of the next three years would have happened, and we owe a lot to HoD Prof. Allan Williamson and Technical Manager Rob Champion.

The next three years were very eventful. After founding the club and passing our constitution at our first meeting held at Laserforce, I had the pleasure of leading the club as Chairperson for the first two years, and we maintained a pretty busy schedule. It included two trips to the VEX Robotics World Championships, once in Orlando (Florida) in 2011 and once in Anaheim (California) in 2012. We've collected a whole bunch of trophies, including the Judges Award at the World Champs in 2011, 3rd place in the World Cup in 2011, 2nd in the World Champs (College Division) in 2012, and 1st in Computer-Aided Design competition at the World Champs in 2012. We've sent two teams to the National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Competition in Australia with the support of the University of Auckland, where students have been able to compete as part of their Part IV (Final Year) engineering projects. We've initiated and supported a humanoid robot research project, as well as supported and helped update other robotics-related courses throughout the Faculty of Engineering.

We've mentored high school robotics teams (with a particular emphasis on girls' schools) around Auckland (both VEX and First Lego League (FLL)), and helped run the competitions including monthly scrimmages, National Championships, and the Asia-Pacific Robotics Competition in 2012, the biggest robotics competition ever held in the Southern Hemisphere. We've produced guides for teams around the world to help explain concepts to help them achieve their goals. We've helped promote robotics at public events such as Big Boys Toys and Digital Nationz. We've run workshops for students ranging from primary school to university students, with the aim of encouraging students to get into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects; for me, working with kids experiencing hands-on robotics for the first time has always been the most rewarding. We've been in newspapers and on the radio (Public Address, no less!) to extoll the virtues of competitive robotics and generally publicise it more. We've supported new college teams, particularly at MIT and AUT, and look forward to future competition with them and other teams at Massey Albany and Palmerston North, CPIT, and Weltech. We're now a well established club within the Faculty of Engineering, supporting student life and culture by being a social club, while remaining an open organisation that encourages students from all faculties and backgrounds to join.

Our members have poured thousands of hours, and in some cases thousands of dollars, into our projects and activities. Our most engaged members have benefited greatly from their involvement; the personal and professional development that they experience makes them better equipped employees for a tech-hungry economy and just better people in general. Our three main areas of work, competition, research, and volunteering each expose our members to a different environment, experience, and set of skills, and provides life learning that cannot be replicated in a classroom. However, as the organisation ages and members get busier with uni work and/or eventually graduate (into the real world...), it has become harder and harder to attract new blood and get them interested enough to fully engage with the club. We've always had a pretty casual attitude about commitment based on "whoever is available", but the number of situations where "no one is available" is increasing. I've personally had to take a (many) step(s) back as I've needed to focus on uni studies as well as increasing commitments to other organisations, although I'm still tangentially involved as the treasurer. The team is nothing without its members, but we really need to do something radical to boost membership numbers and morale, and reinvigorate the spirit of the club (a daunting task for any leader).

Our club has influenced the lives of hundreds of young people, whether it is getting young kids their first start into robotics or providing opportunities for university students to pursue their interests and give back to the community, and I would hate for that to fade away. I earmarked "exceeding expectations" as our unofficial motto back in 2011 after we surprised even ourselves at how far we made it at the World Champs; it is my sincere hope that the club will be around to exceed expectations for many years to come.

If you're interested in more information, the website is www.aura.org.nz. It hasn't been particularly updated or maintained recently, but it still has a bunch more information about what we've done and what we still do. If you already feel like you've read enough, there are a hundred or so videos at http://www.youtube.com/aucklandrobotics and a thousand or so photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/aucklandrobotics. Apologies for the length of this post - there were a lot of feels involved.

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