Twenty HKU Engineering students from the Departments of Civil Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Mechanical Engineering had joint the International Summer Interflow Program from 4 Jul to 23 Jul, 2016. The Program was jointly organized by the HKU Faculty of Engineering and the Tianjin University under the Ten Thousand Talent Program supported by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of China. The theme of the Program was Robotics Challenge. Prof. Francis Lau, the Associate Dean (Development and External Relations), was the guest of honor and gave an opening address in the opening ceremony on 5 Jul 2016. This program gave HKU Engineering students not only an opportunity to learn know practical knowledge on robot design and construction, but also let Hong Kong and Tianjin students to interflow their culture and university life.
Looking back on the Interflow Programme – reflection by a group leader Mr. Max Berthet
After many days and late nights of coding, soldering and drilling, 9 teams of TJU and HKU students took to the stage in Tianjin University’s School of Precision Instrument and Opto-Electronics Engineering on Friday 15 July, to fight for the title of best combat robot. In less than 2 weeks, the teams formed by the 36 students (18 from TJU, 18 from HKU) all successfully designed, sourced and built battle-ready self-guiding robots, working to a tight schedule and with a limited budget.
This was no small achievement. Indeed for many, the Tianjin International Summer Programme (jointly organised by HKU and TJU) provided a first true experience of robotics, as Chan Shu Hin Oscar (year 2, mechanical engineering) recalls. “I had done some robotics before in high school, but that was easy: we simply followed instructions. This time there were none: it was up to us to design the robot, and to come up with ideas to defeat others. Most teams used similar hardware, but the real challenge was to find how best to use it: this is why software was so important. Of course, teamwork and communication were also key.”
Over the course of the build, students worked quickly to gain programming and robotics knowledge, and often had to adapt to unforeseen problems along the way. The teams had to build a self-starting and fully automatic robot, capable of remaining within the fighting arena (pictured below) for the duration of the battle, and defeat other robots by pushing them out of the battlefield.
Ultimately one team stood out, and went on to win the competition. The team members Lawrence and Jerry (both year 2, mechanical and electrical engineering) explain why their robot performed so well. “It was all about strategy”, Lawrence reveals. “We programmed our car so it would turn around the middle of the arena, its ultrasound sensors scanning the field to detect other robots. When one came close, we would push it out of the combat area. We also put a black frame around the robot, to confuse others into thinking it was the edge of the platform, causing them to back away.”
In close second place was Katherine and Calvin’s team (also both year 2, mechanical and medical engineering), with a somewhat different but equally efficient design. “We wrote a very simple programme”, admits Katherine. “The hardware was what made the real difference: the wheels and the motors. Our robot was very heavy, and we got lots of friction from the wheels. We used a defensive approach: we only attacked other robots when they made contact with us, which proved very effective.”
Beyond enhancing students’ team working skills and knowledge of automatic control, the interflow programme also provided a platform for cultural exchange. HKU and TJU students took part in and organised joint activities in parallel with the robotics competition, such as mass games, a Chinese barbecue, and inevitably singing songs. “Although I’m actually a mainland student, before the trip I had never experienced a mainland university”, explains Peter Lui (雷浩宇), a year 1 engineer. “Talking to Tianjin students and comparing our experiences has been very interesting. I’ve realised just how different university life is in Hong Kong and mainland China, yet there are also many similarities.”
For many, the highlight of this cultural interflow was a trip to Shandong the week after the competition. The 5 day excursion included visits of Qingdao, Laoshan, Weihai, and Penglai. Cherry Yip (year 2, mechanical engineering) reflects on her shared experiences with a Tianjin University student Ms. Zhang (张禹娜). “There are 2 kinds of people in the world: those that use Facebook and those that do not. Before I met her, Ms. Zhang had never ‘gone over the wall’, and in fact I had never used WeChat. But on the last day, we decided to switch so we could stay in touch. Although the week went by quickly, we have shared some memorable moments. Ms. Zhang took me to a local restaurant, which I would never have been able to go to in Hong Kong, and I had my first mainland karaoke.”
Max Berthet (year 3, mechanical engineering) will also take some fond memories away from the interflow programme. “Over the three weeks I got to know my team mates well. We went out for a traditional Tianjin style dinner, during which I tried the local food baozi and almost every other local specialty in a single meal. We were quite thorough. My teammates from Tainjin University wanted to practise his English and I wanted to practise my mandarin. In the end, through conversations involving both, sometimes simultaneously, we both fulfilled our objectives, and learnt a lot about each other in the process.”
Overall, the programme was a rich source of learning in many respects. The general consensus was that participants had not only expanded their knowledge of programming and robotics, but also forged unforgettable personal and cultural experiences which they will cherish throughout their university lives and beyond.