The judge counted down from three with a stopwatch in hand, as Fatima Mohammed and her teammates gathered around their robot with anticipation.
With the push of a button, Fatima set the robot in motion and watched as it steadily travelled forward on its wheels, dropped its long arms to the table and swept coloured blocks to the wall, just as they had programmed it to do.
Fatima, 11, along with Muhanad Eisa, 6, and Mariam Hassan, 10, were among the youngest pupils to compete at the annual World Robot Olympiad National Competition, which began on Sunday and continues on Monday.
The Emirati youngsters travelled from Kalba to pit their robot against 350 other teams from across the country, for a chance to represent the UAE at the WRO International finals in Doha in November.
The annual competition is part of the Abu Dhabi Education Council's plan to increase pupils' enthusiasm for Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – said Adec director general Dr Amal Al Qubaisi.
"Robotics is a very essential part of that,” said Dr Al Qubaisi, who met the children and their coaches on the competition's opening day. "For the eighth year, the level and the engagement of our students who are participating here is really developing fast.”
About 1,000 public and private school pupils from the elementary grades to high school are taking part in the two-day event being held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.
Teams of up to three children have been challenged to build a robot that could complete certain tasks within a set time, said Kerry Bailey, Adec's adviser for e-learning.
The groups competed in under 12, under 16 and under 20.
"There's multiple challenges,” Mr Bailey said. "Each challenge has a particular task, to move coloured blocks, to collect things, to climb. It depends on the challenge.”
The robots are built using Lego Mindstorms kits, which combine the brick-building system with computer programming, hardware and engineering.
Safiya Arif, 14, a Pakistani pupil at Al Nahda National School for Girls, said the challenge of building small robots was helping her to get closer to her goal of becoming a biomedical engineer. "I think robots are going to be our future in our daily lives,” said Safiya. "I think we should learn how to deal with them as quickly as possible, so attending this competition might help me to achieve this goal.
"I'm planning on studying medicine where they already use robots for doing surgery, so this will help me.”
Adila Saadat, robotics coordinator at American Community School of Abu Dhabi, said pupils gained real-world skills through these competitions.
"It teaches them to solve problems, it teaches them perseverance, it teaches them how to look at a problem and then break it down to its essentials, and then it teaches them real-life skills,” said Mrs Saadat.
American Community School's senior high school team took first place in the competition. "It's an honour to be able to represent the UAE in Qatar,” said Daniel Bekai, 17, an American Grade 12 pupil at the school.
Fatima's team came second in the elementary school category.
"I'm very happy,” said Fatima. "Actually, not surprised because we worked very well. We wanted first, but second is good too.”
Source: The National