Contrary to a negative stereotype, many Thai students have a strong drive to learn and are willing to go the extra mile to succeed. This perseverance was rewarded by the results of two recent international competitions, in which Thai teams returned home with first prize trophies. The student teams were rewarded for their technological developments in computer software design and robotics. Learning Post goes behind the victories and examines the challenges and obstacles the teams faced, and the motivation and fortitude it takes to clinch success.
The Imagine Cup
Four students represented Thailand under the name ``3KC Returns.'' The moniker derives from the fact that three students attend Kasetsart University (Jatupon Sukkasem, Pathompol Saeng-Uraiporn and Prachaya Phaisanwiphatpong) and one student studies at Chulalongkorn university (Vasan Chienmaneetaveesin). This team not only returned to the Thai national competition, but went on to claim a first place international award.
The four-member team won for their design of a software program that increases literacy rates by improving listening, reading and writing skills. The software they created, Live Book, changes text into images and voices so that students can learn the meanings of words and how to pronounce them accurately. There is also a handwriting recognition feature that enables users to practice calligraphy skills. The software was developed for English and Chinese languages as well.
Robots to the rescue
Another Thai team won the first place prize for creating a robot for the World Robocup Rescue Championships in Atlanta, Georgia, in July. The five-member team, known as ``Independent,'' studies at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology North Bangkok (KMITNB) in Prachinburi province. Members include: Pinit Khueansuwong, Nati Namvong, Thongchai Photsathian, Suchat Junlee and Adisak Duangkaew.
Their rescue robot had to enter a model that simulated a collapsed building and overcome obstacles such as holes, slopes and wreckage in order to quickly reach victims. The team was scored on how many victims the robot could find in a time span of only twenty minutes and how accurate the robot was in identifying the locations of each victim. The robot needed to distinguish between live and dead victims by measuring body temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide they emit.
Finding motivation by helping others
Prachaya Phaisanwiphatpong, one participant in the ``Imagine Cup,'' dreamed of creating his own computer game since he was a child. At age 13, he secretively jotted down codes from computer-programming books at local shops. He would sit reading in bookstores for hours without buying anything, since computer-related material was out of his price range.
His small school library only had a limited number of books about computers. His classes barely taught him anything about computer programing. However, nothing stopped his thirst for knowledge about computers. When the opportunity came, Prachaya was motivated to join this contest because it was the most challenging for software design. He also viewed this labor as having practical applications. ``No matter how advanced the technology is, it has no use if it does not help others,'' says Prachaya.
Adisak Duangkaew, a head member of the team responsible for developing robotic mechanical systems, was motivated to participate in the competition because rescue robots could be used in real life to save people, unlike other robots that are only good for entertainment.
Try, try again
When Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb his experiments failed many times. However, he did not view these attempts as drawbacks and once commented that instead of failing he had successfully discovered thousands of ways in which his experimentation wouldn't work. He was seldom discouraged because he viewed these small failures as essential to invention.
Many of these Thai winners attributed their success to patience and experience, saying that success did not come after their first trial. Adisak said that his team did not win any prize when they first competed in the Robocup in Japan in 2005. However, they persisted to the point of winning first place in the second attempt.
His team advisor, Ajarn Yopaka Chompusri, a lecturer of Instrumental Systems Engineering at KMITNB, says that the Independent's past contest prepared them for the kinds of obstacles they would meet on future competition days, enabling them to be ready for unexpected problems. As a result, the Independent won in two consecutive years, once in Germany and again in the USA.
Prachaya also says his team did not win at their first trial and therefore failed to pass to the national level to compete for the Imagine Cup in 2006. Not letting defeat dissuade them, they developed a new strategy. They learned how to focus more on improving health, which was last year's theme, rather than concentrating on using sophisticated technology.
Thriving in your field
Choosing the right team members is essential for these two competitions, particularly when selecting the people who are experts in their field, rather than merely grouping people together because they are friends. This creates strong team work with highly capable members.
For example, Adisak says that once Nati Namvong's expertise in software was added to the team, their competency in software design increased tremendously, allowing them to build the hardware they desire.
Adisak says that it is important to combine the knowledge of everybody on the team, because nobody knows everything. It is essential to work as a team.
The expertise of the team members makes a strong team, but it cannot be achieved without practice. Another team member, Pinit, who controlled the rescue robot, practiced maneuvering the robot until he was fully in control of it. Although part of the success came from the competency of the robot, it still largely depended on how much practice the robot's controller had.
Adisak adds that constant practice will alert us to the kind of problems we are likely to encounter, so that we can later prevent them.
Parental support makes it possible
Ironically, the parents of these successful youngsters are not pushy. Most, in fact, encourage independence and the freedom for their children to make decisions based on their interest and area of study.
Vasan's parents do not pressure him in a certain direction, but allow him to do what he likes. After knowing that he was interested in computers, his mother enrolled him in the Computer Olympics club in secondary school.
Likewise, Jatupon says his parents allow him to follow his own interests and encourage him to develop expertise in them.
Jatupon remembers his father's lessons about being mindful at all times, which helps him reduce anxiety during competition.
``My parents are more concerned that I am learning the skills I need in my future career, rather than how high my grades are in my studies,'' says Prachaya. His parents, who own a used car business, are not highly educated, but they know their skills of trade very well, he adds. Recommendations for other students
Adisak encourages other students, who are interested in joining a similar competition, to keep trying despite encountering obstacles.
Prachaya says that students should move toward their interest and work on improving it to their best ability, whether it is sports, music or any other interests. He suggests students to have a role model and imitate what is good about them.
Vasan recommends students to first find what they are interested in and it would naturally give them the motivation and enthusiasm to move on.
Jatupon suggests other students to keep practicing in order to be an expert, much like an athlete who practices sports almost everyday. For computers, students need to continuously seek knowledge outside the classroom and practice new skills on their own until they develop their own expertise.
Sharing their skills
The Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology requested that the 3KC Returns distribute Live Book to different school libraries in the country.
The Defence Ministry has also requested KMITNB to produce rescue robots for military rescue operations, such as bomb disposal.
Even though the final works of the two teams appear very different, the intention of the inventors are clear, which is to create an invention that benefits people, starting in Thailand.
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Last modified: September 17, 2007