Peter and Markus
“The depth of learning is phenomenal,” says Peter Kusterer (left), together here with Marcus Fleige at the German finals of World Robot Olympiad.
Kids using machine learning interface
“The depth of learning is phenomenal,” says Peter Kusterer (left), together here with Marcus Fleige at the German finals of World Robot Olympiad.

A teenager asking for money is nothing new. How about a teenager asking for travel money to attend a robotics tournament?

In 2008, Peter Kusterer had just started as the IBM citizenship manager in Germany when a high school student named Markus Fleige asked him, and several other corporations, to pay the costs for his team to attend a robotics championship in the United States.

The team wasn’t eligible for an IBM grant, so it did not seem like the start of a beautiful relationship.

However, eleven years later, Markus and Peter now work together to help thousands of young people throughout Germany participate in the World Robot Olympiad—enabled by volunteers from IBM and others, and the not-for-profit organization Markus founded as an adult to promote STEM through robotics.

IBM Volunteers spoke to Peter and Markus about their partnership and the World Robot Olympiad.

What happened after Markus’ request for funding in 2008?
Peter: He figured out how to get to the championship without IBM! But he also stayed in contact with me about his team—they won—and his later efforts as the team coach. I took note of his leadership and communications abilities, and in 2012 contacted him to see how we could get IBM and IBM volunteers to support robotics and coding activities with kids. At that time, most volunteers were not involved in STEM projects.

Markus: As the coach, it became very clear to me that you can only be successful if you form a great team. In 2011, some friends, colleagues and I formed a non-profit organization called Technik Begeistert to inspire as many students as possible in computer science, coding, mechanical engineering and teamwork through robotic activities. All of us have our own "robotic history" having participated or volunteered in robotic tournaments and wanted to share our experiences with others.

How does the World Robot Olympiad come into this story and what is it?
Markus: Soon after forming Technik Begeistert we saw what was available in Germany for students and really liked the World Robot Olympiad (WRO) and its concept of different categories and individual age group characteristics.

They are a non-profit that leads a global robotics competition using the LEGO Mindstorms kit and programming. There are three categories for students of various ages to participate in: regular, open and football. Typically, there is a volunteer who acts as the mentor or coach. Competitions are at the local, regional and national levels, and culminate with the international tournament.

In 2012 Technik Begeistert applied to be the exclusive organizer for WRO in Germany and were granted the status! For seven years now, we have managed the framework for all WRO activities in the country, including finding local partners—IBM has been very helpful with that—translating materials, enrolling participants, overseeing the IT systems, and more. We’re actually about to hold the country finals on 25 - 26 June.

Peter: Markus pitched me on IBM becoming a partner of WRO at a coffee shop in Dortmund. I was skeptical at first because I wanted an approach that would truly drive kids’ competencies, but he intrigued me with the different format of WRO. I agreed, and IBM became a premium partner of Technik Begeistert in support of WRO. Over time we have organized five regional events, which have given WRO a major boost in Germany. Plus, Markus impressed the mayor of Dortmund and we had the first German finals in the Town Hall.

What do students do in WRO?
Markus: It will depend on the category they participate in, but generally students will spend up to 10 months working on their LEGO Mindstroms robot and the related mission. For example, in the open category, teams create a solution for a theme set by the country hosting that year’s international tournament. Usually it’s something good for society. Last year, the theme was Food Matters; this year it’s Smart Cities. The time spent is about iteration and trying to improve the performance of your robot, but it also about team work, creativity, listening, patience. So much.

Why is WRO a good fit for IBM?
Peter: It helps students acquire new collar skills; shaping talent that may one day help IBM clients or improve society. The WRO approach is really about peer learning, which can be more effective than lessons from “old people.” The contest format is key—time and teaming matter! So, it trains much more than computational thinking, but also all 21st century skills such as creativity, cooperation and agility. Plus, the robots make use of sensors; what we call the Internet of Things. Expertise in this area is increasingly important, especially here in Germany with a significant manufacturing economy. It’s a good fit for IBM, as well as our national agenda.

How do IBM volunteers participate in WRO?
Peter: WRO is truly an activity where the students lead and make decisions, and the volunteers are there to assist. In that regard, we have two groups of IBM volunteers. The first are about six people who form the core team driving content and development and attracting other partners to deliver the regional contests. Then there are about 40 to 50 very important volunteers who come in when the competitions are run—they serve as referees, help with logistics at the events and some serve as coaches for teams.

Markus: Our regional partners are key to success because without them we could not grow the tournaments into further regions. We are very successful with IBM volunteers in five towns Schönaich (near Böblingen), Gießen, Offenbach, Cologne and Chemnitz. Other partners come from schools, towns or other educational institutions.

How many students in Germany participate?
Peter: We have over 750 teams that started this season, and there could be over 5,000 students participating. From my perspective, more significant than a count of students is the fact the WRO runs over months, not just for a day or a week. I think, conservatively, students in WRO are getting hundreds of thousands of additional educational hours.

Markus: There will be 109 teams and over 300 students from different parts of Germany at the finals in Schwäbisch Gmünd. Every year there are more teams than the last. From the beginning we involved teachers and students to get input about the program. We did coach meetings at every local tournament and surveys to tweak things. Also, we have developed a German starter program so teams can join WRO by solving easier tasks or by using less materials, which means lower costs. These starter programs are a big success.

Do you have a favorite story about a student in WRO?
Markus: I have many! Here’s one. Two years ago, a student from Syria came to Germany and started attending his new school. The first thing he did was try to find someone to participate in WRO with him. He had been in WRO in Syria and wanted to continue. He did find some other students and a great family that helped organize stuff. Last year, they went, as a German team, to the world final. For me, that is what WRO is all about.

What’s next for WRO in Germany?
Peter: We are going to try to win support to have the 2021 WRO international finals here in Germany! I believe this will engage even more IBM volunteers—it will be big event. This will give the whole thing the boost to go through the sky. Not only for the event itself, but properly done it will boost employee engagement, expand subjects and I can see us diversifying, opening up. How about the IoT/AI League for kids in Germany? Like the Bundesliga in football! I think this has so much potential. The depth of learning is phenomenal.

Markus: We’re working with a university to get metrics on the impact this has on students, such as development of skills, choices of subjects at school, career choices. We are very thankful for all the support we’ve received over the years from Peter and his team of volunteers. With their help, our hope is that all students "write their own robot history.” We want students to have their own very cool experience!

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