High school student Chhoeut Chanthy had never before seen a robot, let alone built one that operated on code she had written.
But that all changed a few months ago when Ms Chanthy and five classmates in Siem Reap province became the first Cambodian team to enter the First Global challenge, a robotics competition based in the US.
The team outdid even their own expectations, beating regional rival Japan and finishing in 22nd place out of 158 countries that took part in the competition last month.
Each team is first sent a robotics kit by First Global, which they must then use to build a robot that can perform a specific task, without adding any outside equipment.
“This is first time for us that we got the kit from First Global, but the winners from other countries, they’ve done this before and understand about it well,” said Ms Chanthy. “We had to start from square one.”
The Cambodian team’s robot was able to lift off the ground and sort different coloured balls into separate disposal containers.
The competition aimed at improving students’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills, a curriculum being promoted by the Ministry of Education.
Ms Chanthy said her team spent months studying how to write code prior to the robot page being delivered.
The team then spent four days per week, three hours each day, building different versions of the robot until they were satisfied.
“Our team shared ideas with each other to design and build the robot, and sometimes our teachers gave us key points when we had problems or got stuck in the process of building the robot,” Ms Chanthy said.
Ms Chanthy said her team faced many setbacks during the build, especially because none of the members had attempted such a task before. Multiple rebuilds and rewriting of code were needed, she said.
“I am proud for myself and my team,” said Ms Chanthy. “All six of us plan to build a new robot in the future.”
Ms Chanthy added that the experience had motivated her to pursue engineering in her post-secondary studies.
She also wants to see more robotics classes introduced into high schools, and a local competition to be created.
Kim Vanthen, the team’s teacher and coach, said that the robotics class at his school opened earlier this year and his team had a limited time frame to successfully enter the competition.
“It was a bit difficult because for everything, we started at point zero,” he said. “They did not have experience writing code, or in engineering and electronics, but we did our best and are proud of the result.”
Mr Vanthen added that robotics is an important class to be included in Cambodian high schools because it will help train future generations of engineers and technicians, which the country needs.
“The organisers of the competition told us nothing about the robot parts or writing code for it, so we did a lot of research to make this possible,” he said.
Mr Vanthen said he also wants to see more STEM programs in public schools to enhance the capacity of students.
Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron has also called for broad-based support of STEM programs.
Mr Chuon Naron said that education reforms are aimed in part at ensuring that all Cambodians get the opportunity to enhance their STEM skills.
Last year, the ministry launched its “New Generation School” project at Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh to promote STEM subjects among high school students.