Reporter: Ryan Verrydt
It’s not Robot Wars.
Every time the subject of building robots for competition comes up, Tony Lam has to insist that it’s not the popular show where robots kill each other.
Lam has been building robots for 11 years now, but his love of building started when he was much younger. The UOIT student would help his dad build things around the house and play with LEGO and K’NEX when he was a little boy growing up in Toronto.
“I always had an interest in building as a kid, I always loved building,” he said. “As I grew up, building became a part of my life.”
Going to school at Runnymede Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Lam was enrolled in the masters program, which puts an emphasis on technology, math and the sciences. As soon as he was introduced to the robotics program, he was hooked. The team would spend hours and hours after school working on their robot, often being there till 9 p.m. and would also go in on Saturdays to plan and build their robot.
As a member of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology robotics, a non-profit organization that runs robotics competitions for high-school students, Lam’s teams were often runner up to robots that would go on to be world champions.
F.I.R.S.T. gives students six weeks to build a robot from scratch to compete in sport-style games. The schools or community groups partner with companies like General Motors in order to get the professional guidance needed to build these complex machines.
The robotics program isn’t just for students in math, science, technology or engineering though. It’s about setting students up for the future, no matter what they decide to do. It’s open to any and all students and Lam insists that every student give it a try.
“This is about trying to get kids set for a future path, it doesn’t have to be in engineering. It helps them study, it helps them learn new things and it really helps students think outside the box,” he said. “Sign up and try it. If you don’t like it you can always leave, but you’re not going to lose anything by trying.”
There was a competition in 2009 that involved shooting small, rubber balls into a basket, much like the game of basketball. Lam and his robotics team members went to the basketball team at his school and asked if any of them wanted to help out building a robot. One student tried it, loved it and eventually ran for student council and really helped the robotics team out.
Even though Lam has graduated from high school and is studying criminology and justice at UOIT, he is still very much involved with his old robotics team. He used to help with the building and logistics, but the commute from Toronto to Oshawa was too much. Instead, Lam now acts as a mentor and is focused on helping students from a psychological standpoint.
“I’m trying to be more for the kids right now, and have them tell me about their problems and if they need someone to talk to I’ll be there for them. I try to help them out as much as I can,” he said. “With kids being teenagers in high school, there’s a lot of things that go wrong in their lives. Sometimes they just need someone to talk to.”
That empathy isn’t just restricted to his team. Lam has plans to start an organization to help youth at risk get involved in robotics. He is just in the planning stages now, but among the people he’s talked to there is support for the cause.
“You really don’t lose the blood of robotics once you get in,” he said.
For more information about F.I.R.S.T. robotics or to find a team visit www.firstroboticscanada.org.