Engineering success: Chocó’s robotic school

The Escuela de Robótica team from Chocó at the robotics competition RoboRAVE in Medellin. Image: Escuela de Robótica

For many living in Colombia’s Pacific region, the idea of economic development seems almost impossible. This is something Jimmy Garcia, a 36-year-old systems engineer from Quibdó, wants to change. He is convinced that education is the key to sustainable development and uses his passion for technology to create opportunities for young people in Chocó, one of the most marginalized departments of the country.  Two years ago he started the Escuela de Robótica after identifying a lack of problem-solving skills in the community.

Garcia, who teaches robotics and programming at the school, says, “We are trying to empower the community to learn how to solve problems locally.” He continued, “People in Chocó often complain that the central government is not doing enough for them. If there’s a problem, they wait for help or resources from Bogotá, so we’re trying to change that.”

He says he is sowing seeds in the children to empower them for the future, so that they can work through problems that will help them with life skills as well as open up possible employment opportunities through the technical know-how they learn at the school.

Garcia also develops prototypes to help people in the department improve their lives, such as an early warning system for floods. In the Chocó and Cauca area, many of the poorest people live in precarious conditions close to the banks of the River Atrato, which often swells suddenly taking people and houses along with the current.

The warning system Garcia developed would send out an alert, giving people five minutes to react and move out of danger’s way.

“It rains a lot in Chocó, it usually rains at night or in the early hours of the morning, which means that most people are asleep, so the effects of floods and landslides are even more devastating. That’s why an alarm system similar to the ones used in countries prone to earthquakes is so important here, not so much in the city, but more so in the rural areas, so it can wake people up and give them a chance to move.”

Initial tests with the prototype proved that it was very good at monitoring water levels, however parts of it still need development, and they are looking for some civil engineers to partner up with them in the final stages of building and inserting the device.

From October 16 to 20, Garcia led 11 kids from the school to compete in the national finals of the robotics tournament RoboRAVE held in Medellín. The Chocoanos aged nine to 16 went up against around 800 young people, and the school’s junior team, which consisted of eight children in the nine to 13 category, came third and secured a place in the world finals that will take place in China in May 2019.

“This is an important achievement for the kids,” says Garcia. “Not only is it a great chance for them to show their talents, but it has also broken a mental barrier for them. It helps them see that even though they’re from a vulnerable area, they are able to build something that can change their circumstances and improve their lives. It also helps to change the image of Afro-Colombians, so others can see that people from Chocó are capable of great things.”

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